The family home is supposed to be a place of safety, but what can you do when it’s also a source of trauma? The young women at the centre of James Lee’s psychological horror Two Sisters (姐妹, Jiěmèi) are each trying to put their houses back in order but find that their pasts are full of locked doors, crying women, and things which go bump in the night. In the end the past is the one thing you can’t protect yourself from, but not knowing can also be its own kind of hell, an inescapable puzzle that forever corrupts the image of the self. 

Elegant and successful, Mei Xi (Emily Lim) has just published her first book – a horror novel about a woman with multiple personality disorder which is, she tells her fans at a reading, a metaphor for the dual lives many women are forced to lead because of the pressures of living under the patriarchy. Meanwhile, her home life appears to be chaotic. We see her swallow a selection of pills before a one night stand cheerfully leaves her well-appointed apartment, only for her manager, John, to interrogate her after she’s late for an appointment wondering what she was doing the night before which prevented her from answering any of his calls. She reminds him that that’s none of his business. They may have slept together once but it meant nothing to her and anyway he’s a married man. Xi hopes they can keep their relationship “professional” going forward, attempting damage control on a possibly self-destructive business move. 

The main issue, however, is that her father has recently died and she’d like to sell the family home but needs the consent of her younger sister, Yue (Lim Mei Fen), who has been in a mental institution for over a decade. The doctors tell her that Yue has made good progress and they think it might be time to discharge her from the hospital so that she can start trying to reintegrate into mainstream society. Xi agrees to take custody of her, but there is an understandable distance between the two women. Yue is uncertain that Xi will be there when she needs her, partly because she neglected to visit her in the hospital on her last birthday and had apparently seen her only infrequently, Xi claims because she was busy with her book. Meanwhile, Yue is still unable to recall any of her childhood and is determined to move back into their family home in the hope of finally finding the truth behind whatever it was that happened to her. 

As expected, not everything is quite as it seems. A locked door is never a good sign, especially when there are multiple locks to unpick, but as soon as the women try to open it their shared reality begins to crumble. “What’s the point in knowing the truth?” Yue eventually asks an increasingly confused Xi, “it’s too late to change anything now”. The two women are each haunted, literally and metaphorically, by the ghost of their mother who died when they were small in circumstances neither of them are able to remember. 

The real horror lies in the family home. Badly let down by parental betrayal, the sisters attempt to rescue each other from shared trauma but are each trapped by the inescapability of the house. “I’ll always be by your side” Xi offers as words of protection, but is entirely unable to protect herself from the traumatic past. Yet Lee ends on a note of discomfort which sees Xi apologise to her mother for something that is in no way her fault, as if she had in some way betrayed her when quite the reverse is true. Xi’s words at the book reading prove truer than she knew them to be. She herself has her dualities, as did her mother, as a victim of patriarchal oppression which in this case has a sadly literal quality. The women of the Mei household struggle to free themselves from male violence and are perhaps destroyed by its memory which manifests itself in the ominous spectre of the family home which, rather than a place of love and mutual support, is a kind of prison filled with locked doors and dark secrets. 

Two Sisters screens in Amsterdam on March 6/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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