The latest and most luxurious launch of K-horror to both hit U.S. screens and get immediately bought up for remake purposes, Kim Ji-woon’s moody chiller begins with the young titular sisters (Lim Su-jeong and Mun Geun-yeong) brought to live with a high-strung, resentful stepmother (Yum Jung-ah) and their distracted father (Kim Kap-su) in an opulent lakeside mansion cluttered with antiques, deep-green wallpaper, and mysterious closets. Never before has the space beneath an old-fashioned kitchen sink been quite so forbidding, although the trump moment has more to do with considering what surreal absurdity could sneak out from under a battered phantom’s stained slip. But the spiritual disjunctions aren’t terribly simple: The question of who is haunting the house quickly becomes secondary to determining which of the four protagonists is certifiably mad, who will get sloppily murdered, and who is already a ghost.
Like the best of the current cycle of revisionist Asian gothicas, A Tale of Two Sisters plays ping-pong with perception and time, and makes it look easy. Having something grisly happen in a room unbeknownst to us and then revisited by a single traumatized witness is a refreshing kind of shock whammy. Beyond that, it may be a matter of personal taste whether by this point you consider the girl-ghost-with-filthy-black-hair trope an iconic creep-out or overused shorthand. Either way, Kim’s rather clumsily acted film remains monstrously effective ookiness, with crepuscular cinematography (by the Hollywood-destined Kim Byeong-il) that suggests a nightmare endured from inside a suffocating velvet pillowcase. In fact, the movie may be too lovely, too aestheticized, to leave much of a lingering bruise, but as a ripe, almost Victorian-tinged contemplation of desperate sisterly devotion, it can be harrowing.