A Tale of Two Sisters

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

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 theaters.

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 becomes increasingly cruel 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.

Tropes used in A Tale of Two Sisters include:
  • 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 completely batshit insane.
  • 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.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Eun-ju.
  • Body Horror - The burned appearance of the girl under the sink, and the hand emerging from between the Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl's legs.
  • 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 is very good at this.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: 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. Moo-hyeon, in comparison, is often shown wearing bland colours and shades.
  • 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.
  • Demonic Possession: May or may not happen, briefly, during the dinner scene.
  • Denied Food as Punishment: The flashback sequence shows Eun-ju doing this to Su-yeon... for no discernible reason.
  • Downer Ending
  • Driven to Suicide: The girls' mother... although some viewers may disagree. Also, in the alternate ending, Su-mi.
  • Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: See Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl below.
  • The Ending Changes Everything
  • Faux Horror Film: Arguably, unless you take into account the supernatural elements that may or may not be actually happening.
  • Foot Focus: The feet of Su-mi, Su-yeon and Eun-ju get a lot of camera attention.
  • Foreign Remake: The Uninvited.
  • Foreshadowing: 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.
  • 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 the 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 girl in the green dress (theorised by some to be Su-yeon, and is most likely the girl under the sink, due to the fact that they seem to be wearing the same dress) 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 old room 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
  • Jump Scare: Quite a few of them. A good example would be when 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.
  • 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.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Several shots last for a long time, including during the opening scene.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane
  • 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...
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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. And third, though essentially absolved by the reveal of Su-mi's psychosis, Eun-ju turns out to have knowingly allowed Su-yeon to die before marrying her father.
    • 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
  • 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 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
    • The Uninvited had a suitably freaky one as well and it's confirmed to be the girls' mother.
  • Supernatural-Proof Father
  • Things That Go Bump in the Night
  • Through the Eyes of Madness
  • Tomato in the Mirror
  • Tomato Surprise
  • Tranquil Fury: Su-mi, until you push her too far.
  • Twist Ending
  • 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.
  • 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 [dead link].