Review: Three Sisters

Perhaps because Lee Seung-won’s family melodrama stars two of Korea’s most respected actors, there’s a feeling that the tail is wagging the dog here, and often in the film these actors, Kim Sun-young and Moon So-ri, are saddled with scenes that seem to have been conceived as acting showcases, which, when it comes to Korean melodramas, can come off as showboating. However, the excessive emoting peaks with the third side of the titular triangle, played by Jang Yoon-ju, a model and singer who has only recently turned to acting, and as is frequently the case in such situations her attempt to keep up with her more experienced colleagues results in histrionics.

Though Lee’s script and direction show a real flair for exposition, the structure is schematic to a fault, as if it had been carefully cobbled together from half-ideas that couldn’t be developed satisfactorily on their own—a little Bergman here, a little Cassavetes there. Each sister has her own peculiar spiritual problem. For the eldest, Hee-sook (Kim), it’s the tentative life of a single mother struggling with a business she has neither the enthusiasm nor the skills for, as well as a post-adolescent daughter who hates her for her wishy-washy attitude toward everything. For middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon), it’s a bold front of social confidence and a strong religious faith that hides the dysfunction in her marriage. As for the youngest, Mi-ok (Jang), it’s an overextended belief in her future as a writer that manifests in drunken episodes of calling Mi-yeon at the most inopportune moments to pester and plead. For the first half of the film, Lee follows each thread separately without making much effort to intertwine them, but once the connections are made and lead back to the sisters’ troubled childhoods with a violent, sexually irresponsible father, the movie makes almost too much sense in hindsight, as if it had been charted on a white board during a conference call. This isn’t to say the movie as a whole isn’t dramatically intriguing or emotionally affecting; only that the artful presentation is stretched thin on the skeleton of the plotting. 

As with all such melodramas, the viewer expects a satisfying resolution, and Lee’s is underwhelming while being very loud; but it’s not because the premise is rigged. If anything, the three actors manage to build a strong sense of sisterhood when they finally all end up in the same scenes together. The message seems to be that childhood trauma renders its victims unsuitable for family life as adults—all three sisters are either mothers or step-mothers, and can’t manage their domestic affairs without failing their children emotionally—but what else is new? Someday, I’d like to see a movie where a character transcends childhood trauma and becomes someone who enriches their family as an adult because their experience has taught them what is important, but such a movie probably wouldn’t qualify as a domestic melodrama. 

In Korean. Opens June 17 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Three Sisters home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2020 Studio Up

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