Like any good gothic fairytale A Tale of Two Sisters is positively loaded with meaning. I was reminded most specifically of the work of author Angela Carter, whose work often involved the deconstruction of fairy tales in a gothic framework, where blood, death, sleep and sexuality — most specifically sexual awakening — are entwined.
The film is based partly on the Korean folk tale ‘Rose Flower, Red Lotus’, but, from what I can gather, where that tale is a mostly unambiguous tale of murder, here the story is expanded and riddled with ambiguity and double-meaning.
From the very start the movie plays with the conventions of the gothic fairy tale. The two sisters are ruled and abused by an evil stepmother in a house that drips with gothic undertones. Dark rooms, overly ornate furniture and a profusion of deep colours — often red — litter the house. This fetid, crepuscular atmosphere is in stark contrast to the sister’s excursions into the outdoors, here represented as warm and idyllic.
If this were a pure linear piece of Gothic-ness we would accept such extremes as directorial flourishes. But Tale Of Two Sisters constantly shifts the boundaries between real and imagined, and swings between tenses and narrative viewpoints. In the contrast between the internal scenery of the house and the expansive summer of the outside world are the first hints that what we are seeing may be too extreme and disturbed to have any basis in reality.
It doesn’t take an Einstein to realise that the film is much more than a simple ghost story. Without wanting to give too much away, as the film progresses the delineation between the characters of the sisters and the stepmother become increasingly blurred. Just who is who and who is real are questions that almost remain unanswered at the film’s close. Nonetheless such blurring is necessary to the subtext — the film uses this character confusion to deal in part with womanhood and the complexities of the mother-daughter relationship.
Here the stepmother, who may or may not be real or may be Su-mi’s doctor or something else again, is interrogator and confidant, punisher and sympathiser. There is one extraordinary scene where Su-mi discovers her sister has started menstruating only to find that her stepmother and herself have also commenced at precisely the same time. The theme of the menstrual cycle plays itself in typical Gothic fashion. Is it a punishment for being morally corrupt? Is there a possibility of sexual awakening? (This becomes peculiarly interesting as the characters become confused with each other in the narrative.)
Meanwhile the sisters wander the house in their white nightgowns, virginal, ghostly and bride-like all at once. While they are haunted by each other, by the trauma of the past, and their stepmother, it appears that their father, perhaps the loneliest and most isolated character within the film, remains oblivious to it all.
Everything that happens in the film happens to the female characters. When one female character has a seizure at dinner and then appears to see — what? A ghost perhaps? — beneath the kitchen sink, it is a vision that neither the father nor the character’s husband appear to see or be affected by. In fact the father is so excluded from events that at one point I wondered if the whole movie was his fevered, guilt-driven dream.
The kitchen sink ghost hints at secrets that resonate with guilt and loss and which abide in the dark places of the house. Other similar signs and signifiers float by: the killing of the stepmother’s caged birds, the subsequent punishment of the wrong sister (guilt, guilt, guilt!), the dark spaces of the closet.
The meaning of the film is endlessly debatable and probably purposely fluid. It could be any number of things. OK — spoiler alert!!! — my current thought is that maybe Su-mi is the stepmother, there was only ever one daughter and Su-mi was responsible for her murder and … Oh, who knows? This film is one that demands a second and third viewing.
While I can only hope the Dreamworks remake of this maintains the film’s disquieting structure and ambiguity, this highly original Korean film, disturbing, haunting and populated by the living dead, is a keeper.