Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Tale of Two Sisters

I've often thought that horror movies, and movies about ghosts in particular, can be read as the protest of people at the bottom of the social scale. In most haunting movies, the people most likely to become aware of the ghost's presence are women and children. Who are generally on the bottom of the social ladder in terms of rationality and thus easier to ignore by people in authority. That or if this is a secret Indian burial ground type of movie, than this comes from "ignorant superstitions" which are usually ignored by the (let's face it) white protagonists until it is too late. (I could read this as an expression of anxiety about the possible consequences of colonialism, but I would be being slightly silly.)

Ghosts also seem to have something to tell us. Either to reveal a story which was obscured by time, or actively covered up by the wrong doer, or to get revenge. This ghost is often someone who was wronged in life, and whose only recourse for justice now is through supernatural means after death. There are plenty of counter-examples I'm sure, since the horror movie genre is so big, but you have to at least admit that in quite a few of these movies, women or children figure prominently as either the protagonists, or the mediums through which these ghosts communicate. Children, in particular, are seen as having a close relationship to ghosts.

Which in a long and rambling way brings me to my point, which is The Tale of Two Sisters, a Korean movie which was released in the States a couple years ago. I'd link to the trailer, but quite frankly the trailer contains a ton of spoilers, and makes it out to be another The Ring. Not that the Ring doesn't have a few things going for it. (And besides, the story of a single mother, attempting to unravel the curse surrounding an illegitimate child of a psychic, in order to save her child who has a curious, sympathetic connection to said ghost, does reinforce my point I think.)

As does A Tale of Two Sisters, or obviously I wouldn't be connecting the two. A Tale of Two Sisters seems to be about a lot of things. On one level it's about guilt, and the different reactions that people have in connection to it. On another level it's about the gendered nature of illness both physical and mental. It's also the story of an extremely messed up family. Since it's been out for a couple years, I'll probably reveal all key important plot points, so if you don't want me to spoil anything for you don't read any further. You've been warned.

The story is about how ostensibly two, sisters, come back from a stay at a mental institution. They are brought to their extremely beautiful if isolated house in the countryside, by their silent and dour father. Their high-strung step-mother, who Dour Father was stepping out with before their mother's death, also lives in the house.

It's also quite clear that this family is not ok from the get-go. The stepmother resents the presence of the two step-daughters. Su-mi, the older sister is often in direct conflict with her, while Su-yeon, the younger, more passive, sister suffers abuse at her hands. While the father apparently doesn't see anything.

The stepmother is also being given pills, by her husband, and Su-mi just got out of the mental hospital. So it's also an open question as to whether you can believe what they are telling you, or you can believe anything that they are seeing. An early scene where Su-mi sees doubled objects is an early indication that you shouldn't necessarily believe what she's seeing.

Meanwhile, the stepmother and both sister start seeing ghosts. And there's the question of how their mother died, and why the closet in Su-yeon's room seems to bother everyone so much. And there's a clear feeling that past events which occurred in the house are being repeated again, using other people, in particular, women as substitutes. However, is this actually the result of the supernatural, or just sublimated guilt?

A Tale of Two Sisters is particularly difficult to understand, because you never know the full story of about Su-yeon and their mother's death until the last scene of the movie. After seeing the scene, it's pretty clear why revenge of some sort seems warranted. However, you never knew what really happened up until that point it makes the movie far more difficult to understand the first time around.

A Tale of Two Sisters is a pretty good movie in my opinion, however, it does have some weaknesses, the first of which being that it has a lot of Sixth Sense-esque twists. Two or three, depending how you're counting.
1) Su-yeon is dead. Which initially is difficult to the viewer to accept, since the stepmother has been interacting with Su-yeon except that
2) Su-mi has been hallucinating and thinking that she is the stepmother part of the time.
and then possibly
3) the ghosts of Su-yeon and their mother have been haunting the house for real. (this last one is debatable)

What was interesting to me was how the reactions to guilt were clearly gendered. The men spent most of the movie pretending that the event never happened, erasing evidence that it ever occurred, and medicating women when they do something that transgresses the boundaries of sanity.

The women of the movie, however, seem forced to voice and perpetuate the deeds which went on in the house, even as they are being surpressed. Furthermore, the ghosts single out the women to be frightened. The ultimate comeuppance is visited on the evil stepmother rather than the father, who, at least to me seems more responsible.

A Tale of Two Sisters could also be read as a story about Su-mi's psyche. Considering that her personality is split between herself and her stepmother, it's pretty clear that the conflict between the two characters is emblematic of the conflict between guilt and self-hatred, as well as the burden of memory. Su-mi, unlike her father, and her real stepmother (who makes an appearance at the very end) seems compelled to remember, or at least try in some way to bring events out into the open. The film seems sympathetic towards this, although the final results of remembering, Su-mi returns to the mental hospital, are far from optimistic. She may or may not receive redemption in the end. It's really rather hard to say.

The film loses points for a couple of things. There's a childbirth theme, running through all the haunting scenes. At one point, Su-mi dreams about a woman with hair over her face who stands over her in bed, and a small arm comes out from between the woman's legs and grabs at her. And in the final scene of the ghosts appearance, a baby is crying. This part is never explained, at least by the English subtitles, but given the explanation of events in the movie this seems a tad inconsistent.

Also there's a subtext of incest running through the film that seemed unnecessary. The film is extremely complicated, it would be less challenging viewing if it was less so, however, I enjoy this kind of thing.

On the upside, despite the incredibly convoluted plot, the film is really truly beautifully filmed, and it just looks great from an aesthetic point of view. The acting is generally good, particularly from the actresses who played Su-mi and the stepmother. However, in terms of blood and gore, A Tale of Two Sisters is pretty low on that. It's definitely fairly creepy, but it's just not really all that bloody. Well, I liked it, anyway.

Anyone who has come to the end of this, I'll have to think of some sort of prize to give you. I swear that after this, we will return to our regularly scheduled program of short posts. If possible, short posts with some sort of humor. That may asking too much, I'm pretty grumpy these days.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What about sexual tension among the women? and hive metaphor, and disposable male (what would happen if the male disappeared or the father figure was the one that went missing)? Oedipal complexes? Cloroxa