The appeal of horror cinema is often ephemeral. The pleasures of the genre aren’t always fleeting, of course — what horror fan can’t remember the first time they fell in love with the feeling of being scared? — but I’d argue that we horror fans often watch movies just because they’re horror movies. We do this because there are certain earmarks of the genre that we rigidly respect, and even when those earmarks aren’t pulled off very well, we’re excited by the motions. To a lot of us, even a bad horror movie is worth watching.
But, oh! The glorious tingle we get when we watch a fully-formed, nuanced, layered tale that rewards repeat viewings and over-analysis. Modern horror movies often reward the patient, observant viewer: consider the head-spinning linguistic madness of Pontypool, or the excruciating existential torture scenes in Martyrs, or the way The Mist tackles big-picture questions of religion and community even as otherworldly monsters materialize outside. Jee-woon Kim’s heady, psychologically dense fairy tale A Tale of Two Sisters is a similarly brain-wracking delight; the mystery lurking in the shadows is pure horror, but there’s a sense of Shakespearean tragedy and a Brothers Grimm fairytale aesthetic at play to boot.
Unfurling slowly, offering no easy answers, Kim’s film ramps up the mystery before hitting us with big reveals. The two sisters in question are traumatized, damaged children, and the movie obscures the details to no end, never giving us an easy out in terms of explaining what’s real and what’s fabricated. As the girls live in fear of a demented wicked stepmother (a magnetic hall-of-fame performance from Jung-ah Yum), the traumatic and the melodramatic details slowly leak out, always offering hints, never the full picture. It’s mighty lofty stuff, and the layered plotting lends itself to repeat viewings — almost demands it, really.
It almost seems like a lot to take in for a list that largely focuses on the quick-’n-dirty aesthetic pleasures of horror cinema, and I’d be inclined to agree with you if it weren’t for one crucial fact: A Tale of Two Sisters is also one of the most purely terrifying horrors ever made.
Seriously, the thing is a steamroller. It’s cerebral and impeccably-acted, sure, but so is 12 Angry Men, and that’s not making anybody’s horror-flick countdown anytime soon. It needs the horror element, and it has that in spades. There are so many stellar moments of old-school, haunted-house style horror here; none of the scares are particularly innovative, but the film is such a triumph of atmospheric tension and dramatic filmmaking that they don’t need to be. It’s remarkable the way Kim injects vivacious, thrillingly alive terror into scares that look like old hat on paper: unexplained noises, apparitions appearing at the foot of the bed, doors creaking open. Sure, it’s an intelligent film, but it has a razor-sharp focus when it comes to zeroing in on fear, one of our most primal reflexes.
So, see A Tale of Two Sisters. See it multiple times: appreciate the dense plotting and the coiled psychological tension. Pick apart the story and piece together your own interpretation. But watch it, just once, in your darkened living room at midnight; I can’t possibly explain to you why a shot of mysterious fingers slowly curling around an open door is in the running for the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Two Sisters brings the horror goods in spades, and therefore also deserves to be appreciated as a good old-fashioned scare fest.
Extra Credit: Nowhere near as brilliant, Gore Verbinski’s English-language version of The Ring is nevertheless tangentially related to Asian horror cinema, and often brings the chills as a result of his disorienting, anything-can-happen atmosphere.
More 31 Days of Halloween:
Day 1: May
Day 2: The Night of the Hunter
Day 3: The Descent
Day 4: Night of the Demons
Day 5: Them
Days 6 & 7: Night of the Living Dead // Dawn of the Dead
Day 8: Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon