Two Sisters (姐妹, James Lee, 2019)

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)

The Enchantment (誘惑者, Shunichi Nagasaki, 1989)

“A broken romance affects everybody” a sympathetic psychiatrist tries to reassure a patient suffering a dangerous romantic obsession with a possibly imaginary woman. Like so much of his work, they’re soft words offered casually as a path towards something deeper but in this case it’s not the patient we need to worry about but the doctor. The aptly named The Enchantment (誘惑者, Yuwakusha), somewhat less subtly titled “Temptress” in Japanese, takes its “hero” on a dark journey into fascination, the male need for domination, and the self delusions of irresolvable disappointment.   

The film opens with genial psychiatrist talking to a patient, Hirayama (Tsutomu Isobe), who proclaims himself more or less cured from a nervous breakdown born of a broken heart. Hirayama’s love affair may be largely imaginary, and he seems far from “cured”, but Doctor Sotomura’s (Masao Kusakari) failure to challenge him on his new affirmation that he’s over her because he’s realised she was “just a bitch” who treated him “like trash” might be a worrying oversight. Hirayama was supposed to be his last patient of the day, but a last minute walk-in, Miyako (Kumiko Akiyoshi), piques his interest enough to keep him in the office rather than on a planned date with his receptionist fiancée and surgeon best friend.

Miyako, nervous and reticent, tells him the appointment is “about a friend” and takes some coaxing before beginning to explain that she has been physically assaulted by her female roommate apparently jealous over the unwanted attentions of a man who developed an attraction for her at her job as a tour guide. Miyako does not spell it out, but somewhat implies that her relationship with her roommate Kimie is romantic while Sotomura has the good sense not to push the issue, only to urge her that perhaps she should think about staying with a friend a while if she doesn’t feel safe at home. Miyako, however, doesn’t want to do that and is only worried about what might have provoked this sudden and unexpected change, fearing most of all that she herself will fall out of love with Kimie if her moodiness continues to intensify.

Overstepping the mark, Sotomura is fascinated with his mysterious new patient, particularly after he becomes a kind of white night rescuing Miyako from a dangerous encounter with Hirayama who is under the delusion that she is the embodiment of his romantic obsession “Junko”. The fascination only intensifies after he makes a surprising discovery – Kimie is not “real” but a secondary personality inside Miyako. Infuriated by Sotomura’s romantic overtures, Kimie takes control and stabs him in the leg while Miyako continues to visit him in the hospital, unable to remember what exactly happened between them.

Sotomura’s obsession is both sexual and professional, after all how many sufferers of MPD is he going to meet in the course of his career? He is indeed ambitious, casually dating his receptionist Harumi (Kiwako Harada) mostly because she’s the daughter of his former professor. Though the couple live together, Harumi is constantly frustrated by his indifference to their relationship and foot dragging over making it official. Sotomura’s best friend, Shinbori (Takashi Naito), is facing much the same dilemma but has resigned himself to an arranged marriage to further his career and keep his family happy. Sotomura instinctively thinks he ought to do the same and tells Harumi that he’ll sort things out with her father, but remains fixated on the mysterious Miyako and her unconventional love life. 

A more cynical friend warns him that sex is the only thing that matters and it’s essential to avoid emotional entanglements. Nevertheless, Sotomura finds himself desperate to unlock the mystery of Miyako, but it remains open to debate which part of her he wants to “fix” – her MPD, or her sexual orientation. As we find out, Sotomura might assume that Miyako’s love for another woman has driven her “mad”, but in reality it’s more that a sense of impossibility led her to believe that there was no solution to her suffering other than death. Faced with unreconcilable loss, she internalised the figure of her fixation, literally becoming one with her lost lover in order to avoid facing that she was alone once again. Uninterested in Sotomura, Miyako/Kimie becomes fascinated with Harumi who eventually becomes so intensely obsessed with Miyako that she is willing to erase her own identity and become “Kimie” for her in order to support her sense of reality and protect the integrity of the Miyako personality.

Again, Sotomura has a few issues. The first is multi-layered sexual jealousy. Now that Harumi has moved on, found someone who “needs” her, and seems to be happier he is instantly irritated that she left him (for a woman) and desperate to win her back (along with the career boost he romanced her for in the first place). He resents Harumi’s differing vision of medical care, that she is willing to embrace Miyako’s delusion in order to keep her stable while wilfully abnegating her sense of self in a profound act of love. Sotomura the clinician wants to “cure” Miyako of her delusion, but his intervention is brutal, intruding on the mental space of her traumatic memory with physical violence designed to rip her from her safety of her artificial reality. He tries to insert himself between the two women, asserting his masculine “right” to dominate, but is eventually ejected by another knife blow to the thigh as the women assert their right to their own reality in the absence of men.

A strange psychosexual odyssey, The Enchantment spins a dark tale of obsession, delusion, and jealousy but ends on a broadly positive, if perhaps uncomfortable, note, in which the dominant psychiatrist is forced to recognise his irrelevance and the legitimacy of realities outside of his own. Broken romance affects everyone, as Sotomura said, but perhaps he doesn’t have the right to intrude on the broken hearts of others or judge the various ways in which they attempt to patch them back together again. A chronicle of bubble era Tokyo bathed in garish neon and a sense of infinite possibility, Shunichi Nagasaki’s heady feature is a surprisingly subversive affair in which trauma cannot be overcome but can perhaps become integrated in a mutually beneficial whole.