Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death! This month, we’re talking to Josh Alvarez, who you might know from the Cinepunx podcast (which he co-hosts with former LSBTD guest Liam O’Donnell) and as the frontman for the Philly-area punk band Crossed Keys. Alvarez brings intelligence and thoughtfulness to both his film analysis and his music, so I suppose it’s no surprise that his choice for this month’s film is equally intelligent and thoughtful, Kim Jee-woon’s 2003 ghost story A Tale of Two Sisters.
Based loosely on a Korean fairy tale, A Tale of Two Sisters follows Su-mi (Im Soo-jung), a young girl returning home after being released from a mental institution. As she tries to re-acclimate to life outside of the institution, she has trouble coming to terms with her father, Moo-hyeon (Kim Kap-soo), and domineering stepmother, Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah), who had previously been an at-home nurse for Su-mi’s since deceased mother. Su-mi’s only bright spot is her younger sister, Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), with whom she’s always had a very close relationship. But as the sisters try to reconnect, their relationship with the increasingly volatile Eun-joo continues to sour while seemingly supernatural occurrences cast a sinister pall over the house. (SPOILER ALERT: The discussion of this movie will include major plot points)
Alvarez remembers first catching the film soon after it was released in the U.S.
So this came out in 2003, and right around that time we were just reaching the peak of Asian horror and K-horror in particular. So at that time I had just moved to Philadelphia... a friend of mine, Justin Gray (who actually did the Cinepunx T-shirt design for us) was like, “Yo, I went on this one crazy Asian trip and I saw this movie. I don't know what it was, it wasn't in English, and it didn't have English subtitles, but it was still the scariest thing that I've seen in my entire life.”
So I grabbed the homeboy Justin and we went to this movie, and I had no idea what it was. I only knew that it scared Justin out of his mind. This is a friend that I've had that we've been in fights together. This is my boy, and I didn't think that he would be afraid of anything, really, because he's a tough dude, and this movie scared the bejeezus out of him... And I think maybe halfway through there was a moment when Justin started screaming and punching me while we were watching the movie.
[At the time] I was also discovering movies like Memories of Murder, Uninvited, and this was also at the output of the whole Park Chan-wook stuff, the beginning of the Trilogy of Vengeance. So at this time Oldboy was coming out. This was before Tartan picked it up if I recall, so the only way you could see those movies was if you went to this weird store at 8th and Walnut, and one dude behind the counter would be like, “Did you ever hear of this movie?” And would give you the weirdest DVDs. So yeah, Tale of Two Sisters was one of those, and it was like instant love with Korean horror because it was everything that I wanted at the time.
A Tale of Two Sisters represents quintessential Korean horror, where focus on gore or physical horror often takes a back seat to the spiritual and emotional anguish of its characters. While there are certainly some disturbing visuals to be found in this film, Alvarez notes that the true horror of the film stems from your empathy for its characters.
Oh yeah, that's the thing about Korean horror that I found to be the most consuming: all of it is just so horrific, yet subtle because most of it is coming from an emotional core. And I definitely believe Tale of Two Sisters is [an example of] that. This is a mean movie, but also it's a movie that only scares if these familial responsibilities are things that you can relate to, you know what I mean? If you're the kind of person that doesn't give a shit about family, about loss, these movies aren't scary. In Korean horror, even a movie like The Host, which is a monster movie, it's the emotional core of that movie [that resonates], and it's a movie that wouldn't make any sense if you don't care about the people.
There's a lot of people that don't like these movies, because a lot of the criticism (not so much for A Tale of Two Sisters, but definitely for The Uninvited), I definitely read a lot of people just being like, “Well, nothing happens.” What the fuck are you talking about? Are we not watching the same movie? I haven't seen [Uninvited] in a while, but most of my resonance with that movie is over the concepts of loss, and A Tale of Two Sisters is the same way. If you don't have an emotional resonance, then it's not for you. There’s a cerebral element in these Korean movies. They assume that you're participating in the viewing. It's not just a horror where you're to just react. It has to get into your psyche. It has to make certain bells ring for you in order for you to get the horror of it.
This emotional core is what separates Korean horror from other subgenres that tend to become too cruel for Alvarez’s taste, including New French Extremity and some of the wilder Japanese films. Korean films, explains Alvarez, also tend to be more visually stimulating.
I think aesthetically Korean horror movies, like if you look at Snowpiercer or if you look at Parasite, these things have an aesthetic to them that I just find more pleasing than something like those French movies. And I mean I get it, I understand what those guys were going for, but also I just think that the aesthetics of these Korean movies are better, coupled with that emotional core of these stories. That’s what makes them my favorite, because out of all Asian cinema, that's my favorite, that is my number one. It's directly related to Tale of Two Sisters and it's directly related to the Trilogy of Vengeance. Those two are the touchstones for what I love about Korean cinema in general.
But I definitely think that that's what separates this movie from a cruel movie like Ichi the Killer or a cruel movie like Audition [although Alvarez does note that Audition is still one of his favorite films]. I’ll say it, that movie’s fucked up. This doesn't leave me with that same feeling, but the dread is there. The nuances of the horror are there, but the cruelty isn't there... I think I've come to look for in Korean movies, there are scenes that are just full of this gravity, but they’re treated with a sense of innocence, and I think that's what stops these movies from being just fucking downers.
An important factor for Alvarez’s connection to the film is its depiction of issues with mental health. One of the key layers to the film is that we find out in the film’s climax that Su-mi suffers from dissociative personality disorder. She’s been hallucinating interactions with her sister, who’s been dead since Su-mi went to the hospital, and her stepmother isn’t the cold, calculating monster we’ve seen her to be through Su-mi’s eyes (but more on her later). Alvarez notes that writer/director Kim Jee-won deftly depicts issues of mental illness with nuance and respect, an important factor for Alvarez, who first saw the film just as he was beginning a career working in a psychiatric ward.
I was in my 20s, I was trying to figure things out, and... if you examine these horror movies they are all based on loss, they're all based on a sense of longing. The horror is based in the inability to recognize or to reconcile those two things with life as it moves forward. A Tale of Two Sisters is a perfect example of that.
It takes into consideration things like dissociative disorder, multiple personality disorder, which at the time I was just getting into the field of mental health, because before that I used to be a high school teacher. It was just seeing patients that were dealing with these kinds of disorders and then watching a movie like this, it was really on the nose for me. Maybe it was an inappropriate thing for me to watch at the time, but also fuck it, I'm still gonna watch it.
And one of the reasons that A Tale of Two Sisters remains one of Alvarez’s favorite films is that it allows for his interpretation of its themes to evolve over time, and it’s actually one that allows him to gauge his own relationship with mental health while he’s watching it.
Well, participating in Cinepunx and doing a lot of horror movies that we've covered over the years, now I've developed a very strong callous against the depiction of mental health issues in film. It's a weird cultural thing that happens in the culture of inpatient psych, where you're not sure if people are acting the way that they're acting because of them or because it's a thing that people have learned through things like movies.
So when I first got to Tale of Two Sisters, I still hadn't recognized that constant beat in terms of actual care for people when you work in a mental health facility, especially when you work in one that isn't a for-profit entity. [My hospital] is publicly held, we serve everybody even if they're not insured. Typically, for my particular unit, if you were brought in by the cops and you're stuck there by a judge, you'll come to our floor and we will treat you, but there's a lot of things that go along with that. There's a lot of things that aren't just mental health-based. There's a lot of stuff that’s socioeconomic in nature.
A lot of people come in because they don't have a place to stay, they don't have food, the essentials of life. So they tell someone in an ER that they want to kill themselves, and the next thing you know they're stuck in an inpatient place for at least 72 hours until a judge adjudicates them or whatever else happens with the doctors. So a lot of times you get people whose only experience with this is that they know it's a way out of the situation that they're in, and their only reference points for this are cinema. So you get a lot of people that you can tell, they watch these X, Y, and Z movies and that's what they're telling you, so they don't have these “3 hots and a cot” taken away from them.
In terms of this movie, it's a horror movie first, but it's also a pH meter on where I am in terms of my relationship with caring for people with mental health. It's the only movie that has evolved with me in the sense that as I move further into the industry of mental health, this movie doesn't lose its resonance. It doesn't follow the conventional tropes of walking around in gowns and yelling... There was another movie that came out recently about a kid that gets committed to a psych hospital, and they make a big deal about taking his belt and shoelaces and stuff. And like that's the thing, that happens. Like, that's my everyday. But also it's not this poetic moment. It's not a “thing,” it's like an actual symptom of a greater illness, and I feel like Tale of Two Sisters addresses the illness and not the ephemera of the illness.
But what makes A Tale of Two Sisters truly unique is that, unlike a lot of movies that will simply play the “it was all in their head” card, there are still legitimate supernatural elements in this film, as the haunting in the film turns out to be the pissed-off spirit of Su-mi’s sister. Although we learn that Su-mi’s stepmother may not be the Evil Stepmother caricature we first believed, she’s still got to answer for the fact that she allowed Su-mi’s sister to die on the same day that the girls’ mother committed suicide. It’s a revelation that, true to the spirit of Korean horror, reveals to the audience the depths of the pain that must have been felt by both Su-mi and her father. To combine these thematic elements without leaving the film feeling overstuffed is something that truly impresses Alvarez.
It didn't feel like a Voltron kind of movie where you have all these elements coming together to become this one big baddie. I don't know, it's a really interesting thing to think about, because how did they make it so fucking cool without it being too much? I don't even know. I haven't seen a movie like it since. I can't think of one other movie that balanced the storytelling and just the whole narrative of this ghost story. I can't think of another movie that so deftly navigated those waters as this one did, and I don't know if I ever will, dude. Seriously, it's been like 20 years. When was the last time you saw a movie that affected you in such a subtle manner, that haunted you like this?
I think as I've grown with the movie, it shifted from the focus of the girls to the focus of the father as being the subject of the true horror of the movie. Because he has to deal with all this. And imagine having a child that you love and then have all the shit that happened, and then the surviving child is “this.” And then there's a ghost? Fuck, that sucks man, that's fucking terrible. That's the thing, this movie is a horror film based in empathy. Who you feel empathy towards in the movie, who you identify with in the movie can shift and will still be just as horrific. It's like a Russian nesting doll of trauma, and every layer that's peeled away reveals another layer of brutality that another person has to fucking deal with.
But ultimately, although it’s a very heavy film, Alvarez doesn’t see it as being needlessly bleak.
It’s that sense of innocence that pervades a lot of Korean horror movies that I’ve seen. That's the thing about this movie, it’s not nihilistic. Although dark, there's still a childlike sense of possibility that saves it from being nihilistic despite the dark themes that permeate the entire story.
It's the most honest horror movie about mental health that I've ever seen... everything is in there and it works as a horror movie and it works as a narrative about mental illness. So this movie, in my mind, is one of the greatest movies of the early 2000s, easily.