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A Tale of Two Sisters
courtesy of Arrow Films

A Tale of Two Sisters: South Korea’s touchstone psychological horror film

Kim Jee-woon’s captivating breakthrough film lit up the Korean box office in 2003 – now finally available in the UK, we get under the skin of the movie that led a Korean horror boom and inspired filmmakers like Jordan Peele

For two consecutive years, the Oscars have awarded major prizes to South Korean filmmaking talents – Youn Yuh-Jung’s Best Supporting Actress win for Minari this year was something of a sequel to Bong Joon-ho’s awards sweep for Parasite in 2020. The seeds for the country’s ongoing filmmaking successes, of course, were planted long before.

In August 2021, Arrow Films re-releases one of the most significant films in contemporary South Korean cinema on Blu-ray – a vivid and subversive thriller from director Kim Jee-woon that made history as the country’s first picture screened in a US theatre. But 2003’s A Tale of Two Sisters isn’t merely a footnote in the history books. It remains one of the country’s greatest psychological horror films of all time; a key text contributing to the wider visibility of South Korean cinema, released in the year that changed everything for the trajectory of the industry.


A Tale of Two Sisters is the story of Su-mi and Su-yeon, two young siblings who return to their countryside home having spent time in a mental institution being treated for psychosis. Despite the idyllic setting, the sisters repeatedly clash with stepmother Heo Eun-joo, while their father comes across as aloof and disconnected. Worse yet, a series of mysterious and nightmarish incidents inside the house rattle the sisters, and as relationships become strained a series of shocking revelations point towards a dark and unexpected conclusion.

Lined with twists-upon-twists Kim Jee-woon’s captivating breakthrough lit up the Korean box office in 2003 with its multi-layered blend of haunted house horror, psychological trauma, and blurred realities. Much like Donnie Darko, it is a puzzle-like mystery that rewards repeat viewings – initially drawing in the viewer, before wrong-footing them entirely. 


Set almost entirely within a gothic-style mansion in the Korean countryside, A Tale of Two Sisters readily recalls Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with disorientating tracking shots traversing looming corridors, William Morris wallpaper, and ornate furnishings within a sumptuous interior setting. 

This tantalising visual atmosphere is at the heart of the film’s storytelling, which forgoes dialogue for long periods in favour of cameras that linger ponderously on the house’s mysterious objects: an intricately decorated cabinet, a deserted dining table, and the flickering white fuzz of a scrambled television set among the most evocative. “The world isn’t as sweet as you picture it,” warns Eun-joo at one point – her message a summation of the elusive, deceptive images on-screen.

Further adding to the mysterious atmosphere is Lee Byung-woo’s rich score, which fuses delicate and melodic guitars with elegant, Hitchcockian strings to beset the film’s fairytale atmosphere with a lingering and poignant sadness.


While The Shining and Hitchcock’s Rebecca stand out as some of the more obvious reference points for A Tale of Two Sisters, the plot itself was based on a popular Joseon-era folktale which had already been adapted to cinema five times prior.

The Story of Jang-hwa and Hong-ryeon concerns two sisters who lose their birth mother, and are raised instead by an abusive stepmother. The central characters of the Joseon folk tale diverge onto vastly different paths from those in the film however – the elder sister is murdered and drowned in a lake, and the younger sister then dies by suicide due to her heartbreak, with both then returning as ghosts. 

These plot points are abandoned in A Tale of Two Sisters, though the themes of mental health and loneliness remain powerful anchors for Kim’s film. The ghostly apparitions encountered in the Gothic home recall the folkloric, long-haired, grudge-bearing ghosts of tragedy seen elsewhere in East Asian films like Kwaidan and Ring.


2003 was one of the most significant years in contemporary Korean cinema history, thanks in part to the release of a trio of major projects from three filmmakers at the heart of the Hallyu wave.

Bong Joon-ho released his first masterwork, the dark, true-crime mystery Memories of Murder, in May 2003. It was the second-most-viewed film in Korea that year, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor at the Grand Bell Awards (Korea’s equivalent of the Academy Awards) – launching the director on a trajectory that would see him win four Oscars (for Parasite) 16 years later. 

Six months later, Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller Oldboy was released – a film that was such an explosive success that it almost single-handedly put Korean cinema on the map for international film fans. It won the Grand Prix at Cannes (and competed for the Palme d’Or) – and remains one of the most renowned and influential Korean film productions of all time. 

Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters, released in-between the aforementioned hits, was for years the highest-grossing South Korean horror film ever made – finishing the year only about 150,000 tickets short of Oldboy’s initial run of 3,260,000 admissions.

With the Asian horror boom in full force, thanks to the success of Japanese films like Ring, Audition and Battle Royale, UK film distributors like Tartan Films found themselves able to successfully market films like A Tale of Two Sisters to Western audiences thereafter. And with further Korean horror films such as Acacia, Into The Mirror and the Whispering Corridors series also going international around 2003, the year would prove a major springboard for Korean cinema’s wider success in the West.


A Tale of Two Sisters leaves behind it a rich legacy of complex and compelling Korean horror films reaching international audiences, with Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing, Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan and Park Chan-wook's Thirst all finding acclaim abroad in the past decade. A Tale of Two Sisters’ sumptuous set design and rural mansion setting foreshadows another heralded work of director Park: 2016’s BAFTA-winning psychological thriller The Handmaiden.

In the US, a 2009 remake of Kim’s masterwork, titled The Uninvited, fell rather flat – but at least one celebrated contemporary horror filmmaker used the original A Tale of Two Sisters as a specific reference for his own work. 

Jordan Peele (who, in 2018, became the first African-American to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for Get Out), included the film on a list of works for Lupita Nyong’o to watch in preparation for her role as lead actor in Us, the 2019 horror about a family pursued by a group of evil doppelgängers. Also on the director’s list, were several other films that share a synergy with Kim’s Korean cult hit: Jennifer Kent’s dark psychological horror The Babadook, and M. Night Shyamalan’s six-time Oscar-nominated The Sixth Sense among them.

A Tale of Two Sisters is out on Blu-ray from Arrow Films now