Film: A Tale of Two Sisters
“Do you know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it out of your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And it follows you around like a ghost.A Tale of Two Sisters
(aka Janghwa, Hongryeon
, literally Rose Flower, Red Lotus
) is a 2003 South Korean psychological horror film by Kim Ji-woon. It is both the highest-grossing Korean horror film and the first to be screened in American theatres.
The film is inspired by a Joseon Dynasty folktale entitled Janghwa Hongryeon jeon
, which has been adapted to film several times. An American remake
titled The Uninvited
was released in 2009 — not to be confused with a completely different Korean horror film from 2003 also titled The Uninvited
, nor the 1944 American film of that name.
The film centers around two teenage sisters, the older Su-mi and the younger Su-yeon, returning to their father Moo-hyeon's house after a stay in a mental institution following the death of their mother. They frequently clash with their new stepmother (formerly their mother's nurse), Eun-ju, who behaves in an incredibly difficult manner around them (and who becomes increasingly cruel and erratic over the course of the film). Coinciding with their return home, however, are several eerie and frightening events (doors opening by themselves, bizarre apparitions, strange sounds, and terrifying nightmares, amongst other things), and it quickly becomes uncertain if these events are real, a product of the girls' disturbed mental states, or the cruel mind games played by Eun-ju. Or is it something else entirely?
Known for having multiple unexpected plot twists and being very open to interpretation
Definitely not to be confused with A Tale of Two Cities
.Warning: Some unmarked spoilers below.
This film contains examples of:
- Adult Fear: Moo-hyeon has already lost his wife. Not only that, but he lost his youngest daughter on the very same day as his wife's death, and his eldest daughter not only hates him, but is also severely mentally unstable.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: In this film, there is a lot of stuff that goes on that doesn't immediately make sense and you have to think about it in order to get what is going on. Therefore, Western viewers can be forgiven for the Epileptic Trees they come up with in trying to deduce the symbolism of the tents right by the road in the scene where the girls' uncle and his wife are driving at night. These tents are actually a common sight in rural areas of Korea as they serve an agricultural purpose.
- Ax-Crazy: Eun-ju near the end of the film... at least, Su-mi's depiction of her.
- Big Fancy House: Much of the film is set in the girls' vast family home.
- Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Eun-ju. Or not.
- Body Horror: The burned appearance of the girl under the sink, and the hand emerging from between the ghost's legs.
- Bolivian Army Ending / Downer Ending: Su-mi, whose condition has only got worse ever since coming home, is committed once again to a psychiatric hospital, and it is uncertain when or if she will get better. Also, the presence of a ghost turns out to be Real After All and attacks Eun-ju, with the latter's ultimate fate unclear.
- Break the Cutie: Su-mi comes conveniently pre-broken. Also, Su-yeon, if you believe her ghost really was there at all.
- Broken Bird: Su-mi.
- Catapult Nightmare: Su-mi, following the "ghost in the bedroom" night terror.
- Chekhov's Gun: The photographs, the scissors Su-mi uses to cut open the sack, and, of course, the wardrobe.
- Color-Coded Characters / Color Motif: This may or may not be intentional, but Su-yeon is often shown wearing light colours and shades (usually white), Su-mi is usually shown in brighter colours with some exceptions, and Eun-ju often wears darker, (and richer) colours in shiny fabrics. Moo-hyeon, in comparison, is often shown wearing bland colours and shades. Towards the end, Eun-ju swaps her richer colours for a white dress to illustrate that she and Su-mi are the same person. Furthermore, the real Eun-ju is usually depicted in darker shades - she is wearing a dark grey suit when she turns up at the end and wears a black knitted sweater in the flashback.
- Creepy Doll: Although it is completely inanimate, and is used to both enhance the mood of the film, and to further the plot towards the end.
- There are also several in Su-yeon's room.
- Dead All Along: Su-yeon.
- Demonic Possession: May or may not happen, briefly, during the dinner scene.
- Denied Food as Punishment: The flashback sequence shows Eun-ju snatching Su-yeon's spoon away... purely because Su-mi had stormed away from the table.
- Disproportionate Retribution: Eun-ju (or at least, who Su-mi believes to be Eun-ju...) leaves Su-yeon to die under the wardrobe because of a confrontation she had with Su-mi, who was resentful of her due to stealing her father away from her mother.
- Dramatic Irony: In the epilogue flashback, Eun-ju warns Su-mi that she "might regret this moment". Su-mi, very much unaware that her mother is dead and Su-yeon is dying, sneers back that she cannot imagine anything worse than being right there in Eun-ju's presence.
- Driven to Suicide: The girls' mother, although not every viewer agrees on this. Also, in the alternate ending, Su-mi.
- Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: See Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl below.
- Elephant in the Living Room: The cupboard in Su-yeon's room (indeed, Moo-hyeon chastises Su-mi for bringing it up, as they had agreed to never talk about it), although the reason why isn't revealed until the end.
- The Ending Changes Everything: See The Reveal.
- Faux Horror Film: Arguably, unless you take into account the supernatural elements that may or may not be actually happening. The last minute twist being apparently a terrifying subversion of the trope.
- Foreign Remake: The Uninvited.
- Foreshadowing: All over the place:
- In the very first scene, Su-mi's psychiatrist asks her who she thinks she is - a clue toward's Su-mi's multiple personalities.
- As the sisters are relaxing at the wharf, Su-mi reads Su-yeon's palm... after which her face falls and the scene takes on an ominous tone. She was reading her sister's tragic fate.
- During the balcony scene, the extended shot with Moo-hyeon talking to Su-mi has Su-yeon cropped out of frame.
- On a related note, Moo-hyeon never, at any point, directly communicates with Su-yeon.
- During the same balcony scene, Su-mi whistles a tune that was a favourite of her mother's. The same tune is heard in the house towards the end, luring Eun-ju to her (possible) doom.
- Also on the balcony, after Su-mi leaves, Su-yeon notices that the birds have suddenly died. It is later revealed that Su-mi killed them.
- After Su-mi and Eun-ju's fight, and very shortly before The Reveal, Su-mi is bearing the same hand wound as Eun-ju, and Eun-ju has the same blood splatters on her dress.
- When Mi-hee is having a seizure, her movements at one point resemble Su-yeon's struggling after the wardrobe falls on her.
- Su-yeon, Eun-ju and Su-mi all getting their periods on the same day.
- Su-yeon's fear of the wardrobe.
- When Su-mi first enters her room, she discovers an identical notebook set in her bureau and identical items of clothing in her wardrobe, and Eun-ju discovers an identical pile of laundry on the floor. This is because Su-mi's multiple personalities were all performing the same actions.
- Eun-ju's medication.
- Su-mi's nightmares contain brief flashes of Su-yeon being crushed by the wardrobe.
- As Su-mi heads to the storage shed, she stops and glances behind her, as though sensing something. She did the same action in the past when walking away from the house as Su-yeon died.
- The dinner scene, just before Mi-hee has her seizure. The reason everybody is looking awkward and embarrassed as Eun-ju gleefully recounts old tales is much more than it appears.
- The way Eun-ju angrily flips through the defaced family photos is very similar to the way Su-mi flips through the photos earlier on.
- Freeze-Frame Bonus: In a (horribly creepy) deleted scene, Su-mi is looking in the fridge, and, just as she's closing the door, something that appears to be the back of someone's head can be seen sitting on one of the fridge shelves for a split second. Su-mi herself actually realises this just after she's closed the door, and yanks it open again... to find nothing there. Brrr.
- The appearance of the ghostly girl in the green dress (very likely Su-yeon) during the "girl under the sink" scene could be considered this, as she initially appears behind Eun-ju for a few seconds before the shot changes.
- Ghostly Chill: Used to great effect when Eun-ju enters Su-yeon's bedroom towards the end of the film.
- Ghostly Goals: Or are there?
- How We Got Here: Well, perhaps. The opening scene showing Su-mi in the psychiatric hospital could be an example of this trope, or it could simply be depicting her first stay at the hospital.
- Ill Girl: The girls' mother.
- Imaginary Enemy / Imaginary Friend: Su-mi's Eun-ju persona is the imaginary enemy. The Su-yeon seen throughout most of the film is the imaginary friend.
- Impaled Palm: Su-mi stabs Eun-ju in the hand with a pair of scissors in self-defence.
- Jitter Cam: As soon as Su-mi (and the audience) learns that Su-yeon has been Dead All Along, the camera starts shaking violently.
- Jump Scare: Quite a few of them:
- The scene where the girl under the sink grabs Eun-ju's wrist. The audience knows that something is going to happen, but it doesn't make the scene any less tense.
- The ghost in the bedroom suddenly standing up with unnatural speed.
- The bloody sack suddenly twitching.
- The fish carcass in the fridge, complete with Scare Chord.
- There's a few during the scene where Eun-ju is lured to Su-yeon's room and attacked by a ghost. First, something quickly zips behind the curtain at the back of the room when she turns the light on. A little while later, the door suddenly slams shut and the lights go out. Then the cushions in the wardrobe start moving as the ghost emerges.
- Kick the Dog: Eun-ju's treatment of Su-yeon, both real and imagined.
- Kill the Cutie: Poor Su-yeon.
- Kubrick Stare: Eun-ju does this a fair bit towards the end.
- Laser-Guided Karma: After leaving Su-yeon to die, a ghost (whether it is of Su-yeon or the girls' mother is open to interpretation) comes after Eun-ju near the end of the film. We don't see what happens, but we do hear a scream...
- Leave the Camera Running: Several shots last for a long time, including during the opening scene.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
- Meaningful Background Event: As Eun-ju lifts her head after investigating under the sink, the ghost can be seen sitting on a chair behind her.
- Mind Screw: And how.
- Mood Whiplash: Used on a few occasions, most notably in the scene where the girls are going through their mother's old belongings. It starts out as a sweet moment where the girls are remembering happier times and Su-yeon is deciding which of the belongings she wishes to keep - and then it suddenly becomes sinister when Su-mi notices small, bloody scratches and bruises on Su-yeon's arms...
- Also, during the same scene but before Su-yeon turns up, Su-mi is happily looking through some old photographs... until she comes across one with Eun-ju in it, and every picture after that features her hovering in the background...
- The second dinner scene. It goes from Eun-ju recalling old memories and finding them hilarious (while no-one else at the table does), to Mi-hee suddenly having a seizure.
- Motor Mouth: Eun-ju, when the girls' uncle and his wife are over for dinner.
- Nightmare Sequence: Su-mi has a seriously creepy one involving her mother, a clearing in the woods, and blood. Then it gets worse.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Su-mi and Eun-ju have a brutal fight towards the end of the film.
- No Periods, Period: Averted. Su-mi wakes up to find blood where Su-yeon was sleeping, indicating that the latter started her period during the night. She then goes into Eun-ju's bathroom to borrow some sanitary pads. Eun-ju then comments how interesting it is that she also got her period on the same day. A short while later, Su-mi goes to the toilet, where she discovers to her surprise that she too has started her period. The reason for this becomes clear at the end of the film.
- Nothing Is Scarier: Much of the film runs on this.
- Oedipus Complex: Following The Reveal, the earlier scene where Eun-ju waits in bed for Moo-hyeon (who reluctantly puts his arm around her to get her to sleep) takes on a very different light. This is only a partial example, as Su-mi genuinely believes herself to be Eun-ju at this point.
- Once More with Clarity: Following The Reveal that Su-mi has a split personality, events depicting Eun-ju from earlier are played out again, except this time showing it was Su-mi all along. Also, some scenes in which Su-yeon was present now have her completely absent.
- Parental Issues: Su-mi has... issues with Moo-hyeon.
- Perpetual Frowner: Moo-hyeon. Since it is highly likely that he is suffering from depression for many, many reasons, you can hardly blame the poor guy.
- Psychological Horror
- Real After All: Eun-ju is attacked by a ghost towards the end.
- The aftermath of the seizure scene, as well. Mi-hee could see the girl under the sink. Which implies that the ghost that grabs Eun-ju/Su-mi's wrist in the kitchen was actually real.
- The Reveal: Three, and they're all equally as unexpected and shocking as each other. The first is when it is revealed that Su-yeon has actually been dead all along, having died prior to the events of the film, and her presence is most likely a figment of Su-mi's imagination (although it can also be interpreted that her presence is a non-malevolent ghost who doesn't even realise that she's dead, but that depends on how you view the film). The second is when it is revealed that Su-mi was imagining herself to be Eun-ju, due to a severe case of multiple personality disorder, and Eun-ju was never in the house throughout the events of the film to begin with - the real Eun-ju only shows up at the end, to help return Su-mi to the mental institution. Third, Eun-ju turns out to have knowingly allowed Su-yeon to die before marrying her father. And fourth, the reveal of Su-mi's psychosis essentially means that Eun-ju didn't really allow Su-yeon to die, as it was most likely Su-mi or her budding Eun-ju split personality who did it, and her mental illness and/or guilt makes her rationalize the events differently as a futile attempt to cope. Oh, and let's not forget that there actually IS a ghost in the house, though exactly how much influence it had on events prior to its literal last-minute appearance is unclear.
- In The Uninvited, Rachel (the Eun-ju equivalent) was around the whole film. The reason Anna (Su-mi) intially cracked was that she witnessed her father cheating on her mother with Rachel and decided to burn the house down. A trail of gasoline and a knocked-over candle result in her mother and Alex (Su-yeon) burning alive in the second house before Anna can reach the main house. Guilt drives her insane.
- Rule of Symbolism: A lot, including the statue that Eun-ju tries to kill Su-mi with covering its eyes (possibly symbolising Su-mi's refusal to see the truth), and the photo frame containing a picture of Su-yeon shattering as she is crushed to death.
- Later, there's the bleeding floorboards as Eun-ju wanders towards Su-yeon's room. The same scene also has all of the picture frames in the bedroom completely empty, when they contained photos earlier. Word of God states that it symbolises Su-yeon's absence from the family.
- Sanity Slippage: Both Su-mi and Eun-ju - well, that would be the case if Su-mi wasn't already insane and if that particular version of Eun-ju didn't exist only in Su-mi's mind.
- Scare Chord
- Scenery Porn: This film goes into particularly stunning detail on the backgrounds, with very strong use of colour.
- Shrinking Violet: Su-yeon.
- The Speechless: Su-mi absolutely refuses to speak in the opening scene and, later in the film, when she is returned to the psychiatric hospital, and it seems likely to be due to the trauma of everything she's been through.
- Split Personality: The Eun-ju seen throughout most of the film is actually Su-mi. The real Eun-ju only shows up towards the end, and in flashbacks and photographs.
- Spot of Tea: Eun-ju attempts to have one during a confrontation with Su-mi. The latter responds by sweeping everything off the table.
- Stepford Smiler: Eun-ju, big time.
- Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl: This film contains the scariest damn one you may EVER see. And, if you look closely, you can see that it appears to be the girls' mother. This is confirmed by Word of God.
- The Uninvited had a suitably freaky one as well and it's confirmed to be the girls' mother.
- Supernatural Proof Father: Moo-hyeon never (knowingly) experiences anything supernatural.
- Things That Go Bump in the Night: Particularly the first night.
- Through the Eyes of Madness
- Tomato in the Mirror / Tomato Surprise: See The Reveal and Split Personality.
- Tranquil Fury: Su-mi, until you push her too far.
- Twist Ending: See The Reveal.
- Unreliable Narrator - Su-mi.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: When the uncle's wife is having a fit (or being possessed), she pukes on the floor, before her spasms cause her to roll her face and hair in it.
- Wicked Stepmother: Legendary. Or not.
- Wham Episode: There is Wham Moment upon Wham Moment from around the halfway point onwards.
- Wham Line: "Su-yeon is dead!"
- White Dress Of Death: Just look at the film poster◊.
- Your Cheating Heart: It seems that Moo-hyeon had an affair with Eun-ju which possibly drove much of the chaos in the household. Whether it's actually true or just an assumption from the girls is ambiguous.