Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003)
The Guilt Dream

Recovery brings back terrifying memories of struggling wildly for breath . . . a sense of absolute failure and a very clear understanding of it that makes the last few seconds before blackout seem almost peaceful.
— Hunter S Thompson, The Great Shark Hunt:
Strange Tales from a Strange Time

A Tale Two Sisters is a guilt dream in extremis. Su-mi’s life is disrupted by the effects of memory, by the emancipatory possibilities of imagination. There is something terrifically indulgent about this form of self-attention yet as Kim’s directorial vision becomes clearer via the film’s double-whammy of revelations, as the sensual and romantic ‘present’ contorts and deferred feelings of guilt return to the surface, and even while Su-mi’s bedevilled father Mu-hyeon wrestles with his own feelings of parental inadequacy and emotional disconnectedness, amongst all of this we can’t help but completely forgive Su-mi for wanting it the way it always was. Accessing the past at least reconnects us with something tangible: it is more real and passionate than her incongruous existence in the hysterical family home, it is more heartening than anything her present identity as the exhausted non-sister and un-daughter can afford her. Why deny her the perfect solace found in self-delusion?

Like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, A Tale of Two Sisters positively aches with feeling, with good as well as pathos. We sense it as Su-mi and Su-yeon pore over their mother’s valuables in the bedroom (a batch of
photographs in one hand, a necklace in the other, a pair of worn pumps tucked under the arm; the innocent hope contained within the spell passed down to Su-yeon: “taritakoom, taritakoom”) and when Su-yeon retreats to the protective space of Su-mi’s bed in the early morning, frightened by the noises outside; it’s there in the post-interview subjective POV shot in the back seat of Mu-hyeon’s car as they drive through the yellowing countryside, the air busy with flies, sunlight catching the water.

Su-mi covets the simplicity of the past, and in return it cruelly offers her the illusion of a lost identity. Ever the resourceful one in the relationship we feel, Su-mi becomes again in this temporal loop the permanent provider and guardian, the soulmate and nurturing sub-mother: everything she was she is again now within the wish-fulfilment fantasy of the present. While Su-yeon trots off to eat ground cherries, Su-mi inspects the exterior of the house before they can enter hand-in-hand; after Su-yeon’s brief entombment inside the cupboard where her mother died, Su-mi returns to set her free and give her full reassurance that no one will ever hurt her again — it is the apology she has been yearning to make, and is arguably the centrepiece of the movie.

Yet Su-mi cannot distinguish between reality and sleepwalking daydream; she is overwhelmed by the force of memory and the potency of her own emotion. Things continue as (we suspect) they always did between the pair, but Su-mi’s role carries the trace memory of both her own negligence in the past and the fierce independence of her forming ego. The hubris that commanded her final heavily retaliatory (and totally devastating) confrontation with Eun-ju (which becomes the wound, or fissure, in memory; the source of all negative energies regulating the ‘now’) is writ large in the present, magnified many times and thrust outwards in the theatricality of her various hysterical ‘performances’ within the home.

Ultimately, there is nothing Su-mi can do except to dwell on the past, breathe in at night the familiar scent of winter bed sheets, play outside without inhibition, and later spend the last hour before bedtime writing in her coveted diary before resetting her internal clock again to do more the next day. These are the perfect moments of the past, the soothing instances of perfection that we all have access to but which we all, incapable of mastering time’s final ephemerality, tend to let slip away.

30 June, 2007


Anonymous said...

This the most beautiful description of that movie I have ever read. And it makes my heart ache for Sumi all over again. Your description of her as a non sister was particularly heartwrenching because it's the truth. She can never regain what she once had.

Ian said...

It’s difficult subject matter isn’t it – Su-mi’s sense of loss, her desperate feelings of longing and belonging in the past, the desire that will never be satisfied, etc., things we all feel over the years probably – but I’m heartened by your response. :) Thank you so much for commenting.

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