A Tale of Two Sisters (Kim Jee-woon). 114 minutes. Opens Friday (January 28). Subtitled. For venues and times, See Movie listings. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
There's a lot of silence and stillness in the first hour of A Tale Of Two Sisters. People are placed precisely in frames, the house is quiet and neat. It almost feels like the opening of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting Of Hill House, where silence lay "steadily against the wood and stone." It almost plays that way, too. But it isn't the house that's haunted - it's the people.
Two pubescent sisters, after a long absence, perhaps in hospital, return to their father's and stepmother's country house, and weird things start happening.
The outbreaks of weirdness aren't gory or gross by contemporary standards. Yet they're effective against the stillness, frightening in a way that's long gone from American films but currently alive and well in Asian films like Ringu and Spirals.
Two Sisters is far quieter, though, relying more on mounting emotion than on heavy-duty strangeness.
Unfortunately, the emotion is expressed by characters that are barely sketched in. Dad's moping under some burden of guilt, stepmother is artificial and cruel, one daughter's all resentment and rage, the other a bit of a mouse. Maybe this is because of the story's folk tale origins, but the kind of terror this movie generates would gain from more detailed characterization, and its absence makes the movie drag in places.
When the film does lift off, though, it flies with a fine disregard for narrative sense worthy of Dario Argento (Phenomena) at his loopiest. In the best horror films, nightmare confusion can leave the audience with a profound sense of unease. This film doesn't quite make it; the basic idea is too familiar, the characters too thin.
But it's a good creepy ride while it lasts.