I hated A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) the first time I watched it. Well, to be more specific, I loved it until the very end and then I hated it. It was the story of two young sisters moving into an old house with their father and their new step-mother. It was beautiful and slow and involving, and then I got to the end and was so frustrated by the twists that it ruined the whole movie for me. It seemed like the only way it made sense was if everyone in the movie was crazy. I felt betrayed by my investment in the characters and the film itself.
I never really intended to give it another chance. But then last year I watched another film by the director, Kim Jee-Woon. His revenge thriller I Saw the Devil was also beautiful, and held together so perfectly that I wondered if maybe I had missed something when watching Sisters.
So I sat down to watch it again, this time already knowing the movie's secrets, hoping that I'd been wrong. And right from the very beginning, I could tell that I had. Everything was intentional, from the timing of certain shots to the smallest expression on a character's face. All of it hinted at something coming, every shot served to build up just the right tension.
But then the horror is amazing as well. A scene early in the film starts out as just another Japanese-influenced "long-black-haired girl-ghost" scare, until you notice that the ghost's head is twisted strangely to the side. And then you hear the slight creaking sound, and the gentle back and forth swaying of the ghost, even as she walks forward. She is hanging. It's a connection between the ghost and her death that suddenly makes that same old black hair frightening again, like when I first saw Samara's inhuman movement in The Ring.
Kim Jee-Woon is a meticulous and imaginative director. There are twists, at the end, and then there are reveals unrelated to that twist. It is a layered and uncommonly satisfying ending. My original impression, that the movie only made sense if every character was crazy, is sort of embarrassing now. I could only have come to that conclusion because I wasn't paying enough attention. This is a careful and intelligent film. The director was giving me the benefit of the doubt, and I didn't hold up my end of the bargain.