Lee Seung-won’s lightly humorous family drama is not an adaptation of the Chekhov play, but like its namesake does find Three Sisters (세자매, Se Jamae) trapped in the past, their lives “messed up” by the demands of living in a patriarchal society. A showcase for the three actresses at its centre, Lee’s drama works towards a gradual sisterly solidarity brokered by an awkward confrontation with the source of all their trauma but also lays bare the radiating consequences of unchecked male failure as the three women struggle to lead successful adult lives in the shadow of their childhood suffering.
Opening with a black and white sequence in which two young girls run hand in hand quite clearly away from something bad rather than just for the joy of it, Lee switches to the present day in which oldest sister Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) is an anxious middle-aged woman perpetually making apology for her existence, while middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri) is a cooly controlled deaconess and mother of two, and little sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju) is an unstable drunk and struggling playwright married to a moderately wealthy greengrocer with a teenage son from a previous marriage.
They have all quite obviously chosen different methods in effort to suppress the effects of their childhood trauma, raised as we later realise in a violent home abused by their drunken father but apparently expected to put up with it out of filial piety. A half-sister Hee-sook finds herself apologising for anything and everything, filled with intense shame for her very existence. Mi-yeon by contrast has chosen order, devoutly religious she maintains high standards for her family but is filled with barely repressed rage unable it seems to express any other emotion. On realising that her professor husband (Jo Han-chul) is having a highly inappropriate affair with a much younger student she reacts with both violence and cunning, unilaterally putting a stop to his philandering while subtly letting him know that she knows and has dealt with it. Further emasculated, he tries to get some kind of normal reaction from her, hoping she will shout or hit him but she continues in the same calm and controlled fashion as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, in another echo of her father’s violence she finds herself taking out her frustrations on her young daughter, Ha-eun (Kyung Daeun), who rebels against her need for order by refusing to say grace.
Mi-ok by contrast has in a sense chosen chaos, drinking herself into oblivion while often ringing Mi-yeon in intense confusion unable to recall a seemingly unimportant detail from their mutual past. Taking on the big sister role, Mi-yeon finds herself in a similar position with Hee-sook who apparently doesn’t remember an event that was important to her of their dining together in the same cafe they are currently visiting back when she first came to the city and Hee-sook worked in a nearby office. Later the three sisters will attempt to visit another cafe that Mi-ok had struggled to remember but will find it closed, their past perhaps locked to them but in a sense also pushing them towards a happier future as they reaffirm their sisterly bonds after living lives of highly individualised suffering.
Failed by a feckless father, the three women find themselves at the mercy of problematic men Hee-sook apparently re-victimised as the wife of an abusive partner who returns periodically to extort money and undermine her self-esteem, while Mi-yeon attempts to evade subjugation by dominating her husband only to find him rebelling against her through an extra-marital affair. Only Mi-ok seems to have made a better marriage to a mild-mannered, patient and caring husband but is also accused of marrying him for his money while taken to task by others for her “failure” to play the part of the conventional wife and mother, her ability to do so perhaps corrupted by her traumatic childhood. “Just treat them with love” Mi-yeon ironically advises seconds after unfairly scolding her own daughter, simultaneously explaining that no one learns to be a mother, though of course in some senses they do, and that anyone can be one as long as they work at it. Nevertheless, after confronting the source of all their pain and suffering the three women manage to rediscover a sense of solidarity that perhaps allows them to reclaim their agency and live better, more fulfilling lives free of the shadow of the past.
Three Sisters screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)