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Film / A Tale of Two Sisters

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"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 the first Korean film 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 terminally ill 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:

  • Ambiguous Situation:
    • The film opens with a scene where Soo-mi is in the mental institution and is questioned by the doctor about the day she was admitted, which she refuses to answer. It was left to be intentionally ambiguous as to whether or not the scene is a flashback to the day she was admitted after Su-yeon and their mother died or if it is a flashforward after she has her mental breakdown in the house later in the movie and is re-admitted to the institution.
    • It's never made entirely clear if Moo-hyeon and Eun-ju were actually having an affair, or if it was merely an assumption by the girls and their mother. Additionally, assuming that they were romantically involved, it isn't clear if they actually did get married, as the girls seem to assume, or if it was a fling that has since ended.
    • It is never made quite clear if Su-mi is actually aware that Eun-ju left her sister to die after their brief altercation in the hallway.
    • As it turns out, there is a ghost in the house after all, but it is unclear just how many of the unsettling events in the house were influenced by it.
  • Ax-Crazy: Eun-ju near the end of the film... at least, Su-mi's depiction of her.
  • Big Bad: The real Heo Eun-ju caused Su-mi's mental break by letting Su-yeong die.
  • Big Fancy House: Much of the film is set in the girls' vast family home.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Eun-ju, especially after The Reveal.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Heavily leaning on the bitter side. Su-yeon is dead and Su-mi is committed once again to a psychiatric hospital. But Su-yeon's ghost is implied to exact homicidal revenge on Eun-ju and Su-mi hears the tune they sang at the beginning, hinting that she senses her sister is still present somehow. Judging from the final shots of her being happy, she seems to have achieved some form of peace because of this.
  • Body Horror: The burned appearance of the girl under the sink, and the hand emerging from between the ghost's legs.
  • Broken Bird: Su-mi is traumatized from having her mother and sister taken away from her on the same day. Her non-responsiveness at the hospital would even suggest she's become an Empty Shell.
  • 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.
  • Closet Punishment: The Evil Stepmother finds out that her pet bird has been killed. So she cruelly locks Su-yeon in the closet and refuses to free her until she apologises.
  • Color-Coded Characters: 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.
  • Comforting Comforter: Soo-mi pulls the blanket up for her sleeping dad.
  • Creepy Doll: Although it is completely inanimate and 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, who died when the wardrobe collapsed on her pre-story.
  • 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... because Su-mi had stormed away from the table.
  • Desk Sweep of Rage: Soo-mi wipes her stepmother's tea cup off the table in anger.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • It is eventually revealed that Eun-ju left Su-yeon to die under the wardrobe because of a confrontation she had with Su-mi, who was resentful of her due to her affair with her father. It is also worth noting that Eun-ju didn't quite think about how it also may have affected Moo-hyeon as well, by leaving her for dead.
    • On a related note, if one believes that Eun-ju is ultimately killed by Su-yeon's ghost in the end, and if one accepts the alternate ending where Su-mi commits suicide by overdosing on medication as canon, then that means that Moo-hyeon is all alone now with his entire family dead. Sure, he may have indirectly caused the film's events when he had an affair on his terminally ill wife but starting a chain of events where it leads to his whole family dead? He had no way of knowing that would happen, and no one deserves such a cruel fate.
  • Door Handle Scare: Su-yeon is terrified in her bed when the door to her sleeping room starts slowly opening with a hand appearing around the door handle. As it turns out this was just a Nightmare Sequence.
  • 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.
  • Dream Within a Dream: Soo-mi has a false awakening in which she encounters a Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl in her bedroom.
  • Driven to Suicide: The girls' mother, although not every viewer agrees on this. Also, in the alternate ending, Su-mi.
  • Fauxshadowing: A few instances of such, probably to add to the unpredictable nature of the plot.
    • When the two sisters are sitting by the wharf, there is a shot from inside the water up to the girls, implying that something is down there. But this idea is never followed up.
    • The Jump Scare with the fish corpse in the fridge. It's an isolated moment that is never brought up again.
  • 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 first dinner, Eun-ju explains how the uncle will come over for a visit to see the girls. The father freezes for a second, then finishes eating and leaves without saying anything to that.
    • 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.
      • On a related note, in the balcony scene, it is shown that Su-yeon can't whistle her mother's favorite tune. When we see Su-mi alone in her room after she is readmitted into the mental hospital, she hears this same tune and recognizes it as Su-yeon, which means her ghost CAN whistle. This same tune is also what's heard when Eun-ju investigates Su-yeon's former room and is (possibly) killed by her ghost.
    • 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.
    • When Eun-joo is at the dinner party alone with Moo-hyeon and her brother and sister-in-law, she is sharing a weird story about a childhood incident with Soo-mi and Soo-yeon which she couldn't possibly know about.
    • 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.
    • When Su-mi rescues Su-yeon from being locked in the wardrobe, and she apologises for not being having heard her more quickly.
    • Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl. The IMMENSELY creepy ghost that Su-mi sees in her bedroom has a broken neck and blood pours down her legs from know, crotch. The girls' mother committed suicide by hanging, explaining her broken neck, and the blood symbolizes the child she lost that same day, Su-yeon.
      • Also applies to the ghost of that young girl seen various times. Several of Su-yeon's photographs show that she is wearing a green dress with a hairclip (the same hairclip "Eun-ju" finds in the kitchen) and a blue ribbon. She wore this same outfit the day she died, and that same blue ribbon is seen snaking up into the closet when Eun-ju enters her former room. This reveals that this ghost is actually Su-yeon, proven further in an extended scene where this grossly disfigured ghost in the end transforms into Su-yeon when she attacks Eun-ju.
  • Forgiven, but Not Forgotten: Averted. When Su-mi is readmitted into the hospital after her second mental breakdown, Eun-ju attempts to reconcile her relationship with her (which was dysfunctional to put it lightly) and finally make peace, by promising to visit her as often as she can. Su-mi completely rebuffs her advances, making it quite clear that not only will she never forget about what happened to Su-yeon and her implied affair with Moo-hyeon, but it's obvious that she will never forgive her for it.
  • 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 (revealed to be 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.
  • Freeze-Frame Ending: The movie ends with a freeze frame on Soo-mi as she walks away from the house.
  • From Bad to Worse: 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.
  • Ghost Butler: Towards the end, the door closes on Eun-joo right before she is being attacked.
  • Ghostly Chill: When Eun-joo returns to the house and enters Soo-yeon's former room, her breath is visible and she is shaking rapidly. It's a sign that Soo-yeon's ghost is present who then proceeds to attack Eun-joo.
  • 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.
  • Imaginary Enemy: Su-mi's Eun-ju persona is the imaginary enemy.
  • Imaginary Friend: The Su-yeon seen throughout most of the film is the imaginary friend.
  • Jitter Cam: As soon as Su-mi (and the audience) learns that Su-yeon has been Dead All Along, the camera starts shaking violently.
  • Journey to Find Oneself: Su-mi. After all of the trauma that she's been through following her brief return to her house, it's clear that she needs to find some kind of peace in her life after the death of her mother and sister, if she hopes to get better. Su-yeon's ghost is heard whistling in her room, implying that she will always be with her, followed by Su-yeon returning to her former room to (presumably) kill Eun-ju. It then cuts to Su-mi lying back in her bed with a small smile on her face, having finally found some form of peace.
  • 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.
  • Karma Houdini: Ultimately averted. While Eun-ju received no punishment for leaving Su-yeon to die, given that nobody else witnessed it, she is eventually attacked by a ghost after Su-mi is taken back to the hospital. Whether this results in her death or not is unclear.
  • Kick the Dog: Eun-ju's treatment of Su-yeon, both real and imagined.
  • Kill the Cutie: Poor Su-yeon, who died after her father's mistress refused to save her from a wardrobe collapse.
  • 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: After the reveal that Su-yeon has been Dead All Along, it seems that Su-mi was merely hallucinating her presence all along. But near the end, a ghost heavily implied to be Su-yeon attacks Eun-ju, making it unclear as to whether or not Su-mi was truly imagining her. The fact that Mi-hee, an outside party who has no way of knowing the extent of Su-mi's mental problems, claims to have seen a girl under the sink only muddies things further.
  • 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. Su-yeon's been Dead All Along, much of the mistreatment Su-mi's been attributing to her stepmother Eun-ju was her own split personality, and yet the ghost is real.
  • Minimalist Cast: The film features four main characters, plus four extras.
  • 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.
  • Murder by Inaction: As it turns out, Eun-ju saw Su-yeon being crushed to death by the wardrobe, and briefly contemplated helping her, but ultimately decided to leave her to her fate, mainly to spite Su-mi.
  • Nightmare Sequence: Su-mi has a seriously creepy one involving her mother, a clearing in the woods, and blood. Then it gets worse.
  • 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.
  • Oedipus Complex: Played with. 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. However, 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, you can hardly blame the poor guy.
  • P.O.V. Shot: A quick one from Soo-mi as she is dragged across the floor by Eun-joo after their fight.
  • "Psycho" Strings: Heard near the end during The Reveal of the real Eun-joo coming face to face with Su-mi.
  • 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.
  • Removed from the Picture: Soo-mi rips Eun-joo from the old photographs.
  • The Reveal: Several, 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 (and in a flashback), to help return Su-mi to the mental institution. Third, Eun-ju turns out to have knowingly allowed Su-yeon to die just to spite Su-mi. Oh, and let's not forget that there actually ARE ghosts in the house, though exactly how much influence they had on events prior to their literal last-minute appearance is unclear.
  • 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: Plays when Su-mi drops the dead fish she found in the fridge.
  • Scenery Porn: This film goes into particularly stunning detail on the backgrounds, with very strong use of colour.
  • Shear Menace: Su-mi stabs Eun-ju in the hand with a pair of scissors in self-defence.
  • 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.
  • Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl: Su-mi has a nightmare vision of a character like this in her bedroom. And, if you look closely, you can see that it appears to be the girls' mother (confirmed by Word of God).
  • Supernatural-Proof Father: Moo-hyeon never (knowingly) experiences anything supernatural. Averted in a deleted scene where after telling Su-mi that Su-yeon is dead, an electric fan suddenly turns on behind him, without it being plugged in. He is visibly unnerved by this.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Most of the movie is through Su-mi's perspective, showing her hallucinations of Su-yeon and her Split Personality acting as Eun-joo.
  • Tranquil Fury: Su-mi, until you push her too far.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Su-mi, due to her Split Personality and her hallucinations induced by grief over her sister and mother's deaths.
  • 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.
  • Wham Line: "Su-yeon is dead!"
  • Wham Shot: During Su-mi and Eun-ju's fight, Moo-hyeon walks in to find Su-mi unconscious...and wearing Eun-ju's clothes and with the same stab wounds she inflicted on her.
  • What Have I Done?: Su-mi and Eun-ju.
    • Su-mi is quite clearly guilt-ridden when she realizes that she inadvertently caused her sister's death by giving in to her rage and insulting Eun-ju. It's what eventually lead to her mental breakdown. You can hardly blame her even though she is completely innocent and had no way of knowing that her mother was dead and that her sister is dying literally in the next room from where she's standing.
    • When we finally meet the real Eun-ju in the third act, it's quite apparent that she feels immense guilt for letting Su-yeon die instead of helping her, once she sees how much it affected Su-mi and Moo-hyeon emotionally but in her case, this guilt is well deserved.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Eun-joo clearly despises her stepdaughters from the start and mistreats them constantly, from talking down to them as if they're children to beating and locking one of them in a wardrobe and refusing to let her out unless she apologizes. The reality is slightly more complicated: the Eun-joo seen throughout the film is revealed to actually be Su-mi's Split Personality acting out her impression of Eun-joo, and the real Eun-joo only shows up in person at the end to help Moo-hyeon take Su-mi back to the institution. She initially seems to be a subversion because she speaks kindly to Su-mi and promises to visit her, despite Su-mi's rejection, but then it turns out that Eun-joo deliberately let Su-yeon suffocate to death under a wardrobe to spite Su-mi for talking back to her, making her fulfill this trope after all.
  • Worst Aid: Physically restraining someone having a seizure, on their back.