South Korean film “Three Sisters” may make you feel wince or cringe a lot at first. As revolving around three very different sisters who are all quite problematic in each own way, the movie is often darkly humorous and uncomfortable in the depiction of their respective miserable situations, but then they come to us as damaged human characters while we get to know more of them along the story, and it is actually cathartic to see what is inevitably sparked and revealed around the time when they finally gather together later in the movie.
They are Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young), Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri), and Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju), and the first act of the movie gradually establishes the considerable emotional distance among them. While Hee-sook has been quite distant to both Mi-yeon and Mi-ok especially after her failed marriage, Mi-yeon sometimes talks with Mi-ok on the phone, but she cannot help but annoyed every time because her younger sister usually rambles and whines a lot in addition to being pretty drunk, and there are a couple of amusingly uncomfortable scenes where Mi-yeon tries to finish her phone conversation with Mi-ok as soon as possible while seemingly indulging her as her ‘good’ older sister.
Mi-ok has aspired to be a successful writer someday, but she has been frequently mired in alcohol without much progress, and her husband and her stepson often have to tolerate her alcoholic temper a lot everyday. Although it is hard to imagine what he could possibly see from her before marrying her, Mi-ok’s husband, who takes care of many domestic stuffs instead of her when he is not working outside, willingly endures many capricious behaviors of hers, and he even dutifully waits for her outside while she is having some more drink with an old colleague of hers at a local bar.
At least, Mi-ok’s daily life is a bit more stable than the grim current status of Hee-sook, who has run a small shabby flower shop alone without any help from her rebellious adolescent daughter or her useless ex-husband. In contrast to Mi-ok’s tempestuous personality, Hee-sook is a meek and downtrodden woman who always apologizes a little too much, and her daughter usually regards her with cold annoyance while often being as selfish and self-absorbed as you can expect from her age.
In case of Mi-yeon, it looks like she has had a much better life along with her professor husband and their two little kids, but we soon begin to see the cracks behind her supposedly respectable façade. To many others in her Protestant church, she is an admirable deacon who also works as the conductor of the church choir, but all she cares about is impressing others as well as their pastor more, and her family has been pretty sick of that. At one point, she drives her daughter to tears just because her daughter refuses to pray along with her family before having a dinner, and she does not seem to feel any remorse about that as fervently sticking to her religious belief.
And we see how much Mi-yeon can go for covering any crack inside her family. When Mi-ok unexpectedly comes to church on one day, she hurriedly takes Mi-ok away from the church before Mi-ok talks more in front of the pastor and others in the church. When she happens to notice something suspicious between her husband and one of her choir members, she does not say anything about that, but, once she finally gets the confirmation on that, she surely shows us how ruthless and calculating she can be.
Mi-ok and her two sisters are certainly not someone with whom you want to be associated at any chance, but they are presented with recognizable human qualities, and we come to understand and emphasize with them more even though we still observe them from the distance. What occurs among them and several other family members of theirs during the last act of the film is predictably melodramatic to say the least, but it works mainly because we come to know how troubled and damaged they really are in many aspects, and it is touching to see how they subsequently manage to move onto a small moment of sisterly solidarity in the end.
Moreover, they are fabulously embodied by the three main performers of the movie, who ably carry each own part before generating a series of stupefying moments of emotional clashes together. Moon So-ri, who has steadily impressed us since her memorable performance in Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002), is fearlessly convincing in her character’s gradual implosion along the narrative, and she also does not hesitate at all from the sheer nastiness of her character. Kim Sun-young is alternatively frustrating and heartbreaking in her several key scenes, and she is particularly good when her character reveals her darker side to us in the middle of the story. In case of Jang Yoon-ju, she is utterly uncompromising as willingly hurling herself into her spectacularly messy and unapologetic character, and her resulting performance is as edgy and brave as Charlize Theron in “Young Adult” (2011).
Overall, “Three Sisters” is not something you can casually watch just for entertainment, but it is often compelling thanks to its three frighteningly vivid and realistic main characters and the superlative performances behind them. You may still not like them much even at the end of the movie, but they deserve some empathy and understanding at least, don’t they?