A Tale Of… – Two Sisters

Not a review of the Korean film, Adi Iskandar finds that James Lee’s ‘Two Sisters’ latest effort hits all the right spots all the same.

He may not have been as present in the public view more recently as a filmmaker, but don’t let that fool you: James Lee have been keeping himself busy in a number of different ways. He’s been pushing envelopes with the development of his YouTube channel, for instance. It’s not a common approach for many established filmmakers to make (usually it is a step taken by those newer to the industry), but it nevertheless remains pleasant to see him step back into the mainstream cinematic spotlight with the release of this feature effort.

‘Two Sisters’ tells the story of Mei Xi (Emily Lim) and Mei Yue (Lim Mei Fen), two adult siblings. They appear to be somewhat estranged from each other, not helped by Mei Yue being committed to a psychiatric hospital. Mei Xi is looking to sell their family house, but as willed by their late father (Mike Chuah), it can only be done with the agreement of both sisters. In discharging Mei Yue from the hospital, and bringing her back to that same big house, Mei Xi appears to have little more than capitalistic endeavours on her mind. However, Mei Yue seems to be uncovering more of the past than is bargained for, leading to all sorts of questions and mysteries for the two sisters.

Read the above paragraph again, and you might find a sense of déjà vu. A simple exploration of the highlights, for instance, reveal how much of the above appears to be somewhat universal in theme; if anything, it seems that intra-family drama is the bread and butter of the horror genre. Yet what remains intriguing is how the filmmaking team decided on a more low-key approach. There’s a lot of subtlety here, which is not inappropriate given the emphasis on psychology as the driver of this film. That doesn’t mean that you need a degree in that area to fully comprehend what’s going on, for the focus is on what you imagine with your mind. And James can really make us imagine, even with only white sheets of cloth.

What he did especially well, above and beyond a number of other filmmakers, is to maintain the scope of possibilities as much and for as long as possible. Simply put, in quite a lot of horror films, you can see the logic that lies behind the story relatively quickly. ‘The Conjuring’, for instance, revealed Bathsheba a little too early for my liking. Everything leading up to that was excellent, as the horror was largely contained within the constraints of my imagination. Once she was shown on screen less than half an hour into the film, and once her logic was made clear, the tension turned from figuring out what we’re dealing with to conjuring a solution to the problem. In that regard, ‘Two Sisters’ kept me on the edge of my seat a lot longer than I thought it would have done. The transition from ‘what’ to ‘why’ was extended, with little by way of a definitive explanation outside the final portions of the film. Even the music discombobulates, as Nick Davis hints at familiar symphonies without giving us the full release until later.

Having said all that, I wondered whether I was missing something in reading this film the way I did. Understanding him (or at least his films) the way I think I do, I kept waiting for a moment in which a more overt criticism of Malaysian society would present itself. It feels like quite a lot of his previous horror films, such as ‘KL24: Zombie’ and ‘Histeria’, would have more than a few traces of such thoughts. Here, however, there’s not much of a critical dig at society. Perhaps something could be read in some of the revelations later in the film, but I’d see that as trivial at best. This simply means that ‘Two Sisters’ is planned and produced primarily as a horror film, pure and simple. For my part, I can always appreciate a film that is made as a film.

A fair amount of the credit should also be given to the two lead actresses, Emily Lim and Lim Mei Fen. We did an interview with Mei Fen, who went in-depth into the experience of acting in this film. Both performances were incredibly subtle, again leaving that room for different interpretations to be made, even as each is the yin to the other’s yang. Emily’s Mei Xi, for instance, seems to be a lot colder and far more utilitarian than is ideal, not averse to having one night stands if it pleases her.

Mei Yue, on the other hand, appears to not have heard of how curiosity is not great for cats, for she is more than willing to explore the recesses of the house (and her mind). I must admit to covering my eyes a number of times, wishing how the girls would learn from other horror films and not go check out every single sound in the house. I must also confess to not being all that familiar with the filmography of both actresses, but this feels like it should be a career highlight for the both of them.

Perhaps the same could be said for all involved in the film. It’s difficult to believe that the film was made for only RM300,000. I understand that many on the production worked for relatively low wages, but this is indeed the switching on of a light in the darkness. Kuman Pictures was formed with the intention of showing how quality films can be made without necessarily sky-high budgets. Setting it to only a few locations also limited extraneous costs such as transportation.

Perhaps they should spend a little bit more on distributing and exhibiting this film far and wide. I can imagine, for instance, that the right moves being made would see this film traverse all sorts of film festivals (especially the fantastic ones), and do well in other territories such as Taiwan and Hong Kong (partly because of the language). The Indonesian ‘Pengabdi Setan’, sharing less in terms of on-screen characteristics with the audience, topped the charts in Hong Kong, so there’s proof in some pudding that it’s not impossible. The point remains that ‘Two Sisters’ is a quality film, one that deserves to be defined not necessarily or only by its nationality, but as a high-performing entrant in the horror genre.

Read our interview with Lim Mei Fen here and here. ‘Two Sisters’ will be released in Malaysia on Thursday 18th April 2019. Click here for more details on the movie, including screening locations.

Featured image credit: Kuman Pictures

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