When critiquing a remake, people often make the mistake of setting it against the original, forgetting that the whole point of retelling a story is to bring something new to the mix. A Tale of Two Sisters reinterprets a popular Korean fable called “Chang Hwa, Hong Ryon Jeon” (“Rose and Red Lotus”), which has been adapted to film on several occasions. I haven’t seen any of the earlier versions, but I fancy myself a pioneer when it comes to making mistakes, so I’ve decided to base my review of Kim Ji Woon’s tragic ghost story on how the movie compares with its own remake, The Uninvited (2009).
Both films tell of an unstable teenager struggling with her mother’s death. After spending time in a mental institution, the girl returns to her countryside home, where she’s reunited with her loving sister. In the American version, the heroine is the younger sibling in need of protection. A Tale of Two Sisters asks us to identify with the eldest instead. Watching over her kid sister Soo Yeon (Mun Geun Yeong) with almost desperate resolve, Soo Mi (Lim Su Jeong) is a more spirited character, but she’s just as helpless, making her plight all the more heartrending.
The child seems pathologically inclined to defy her erratic new stepmother, Eun Joo (Yum Jung Ah), who then takes it out on Soo Yeon with disquieting brutality. The Uninvited tones down their antagonism in order to build up its sordid mystery, but here the “other woman” reveals her wicked nature early on, growing increasingly mad as the story progresses. That’s because writer-director Kim Ji Woon doesn’t rely on our morbid curiosity but on our compassion for Soo Mi, whose own psyche may be too fragile to endure this sort of malice.
This is not to say A Tale of Two Sisters is devoid of supernatural elements. It’s an Asian horror flick, after all, which, ever since Nakata Hideo’s Ringu came out in 1998, means a ghoulish woman with long black hair must crawl from under the furniture at some point. In fairness, the spirit’s gender plays into Soo Mi’s grief as well as her identity crisis, and, to my knowledge, there aren’t that many green-haired Asians outside of anime. The remake, which features a great deal more apparitions, completely jettisons the whole “Cousin Itt” angle. The motif just isn’t that important to the story.
It’s also worth noting that the ghost doesn’t show up until halfway into the Korean version, which favours atmosphere over jump scares. As visually appealing as it is frightening, the film reminds me of the depictions in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic novella The Yellow Wallpaper in the way it uses symmetry and oversaturation to unsettle us, allowing the family drama to unfold at a slow and deliberate pace. The Uninvited isn’t as confident in its material, so it undermines its own plot with pointless tangents about false identities and mysterious disappearances.
Mind you, some of these digressions serve as red herrings for the surprise ending, which, as is the trend in recent Hollywood thrillers, redefines every prior event as if the whole story were just an elaborate con. Kim Ji Woon structures his movie in a more organic manner, solving its mysteries incrementally. In fact, the most startling reversal, which sheds new light on the siblings’ relationship, occurs two thirds into the film, allowing us to actually experience its ramifications on the narrative. As the title suggests, the focus is on the two sisters, not a glorified parlour trick.
I’m being harsh on The Uninvited, which is perfectly adequate when taken on its own. It doesn’t share the original’s creative scope or its insight into human nature, but then few entries in the genre do. Whereas most scary movies settle for violent sensationalism, A Tale of Two Sisters explores themes like grief, guilt, and the sort of mundane callousness that can scar a person for life. Like its final revelation, which bears no resemblance to that of the remake, the film won’t shock or terrify you so much as haunt you with its cruel poetry.