Three Sisters 세자매 Director: Lee Seung-won (2020) [Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021]

Three Sisters    Three Sisters Film Poster

세자매 Se Ja-mae

Release Date: January 27th, 2021

Duration: 115 mins.

Director: Lee Seung-won

Writer: Lee Seung-won (Script), 

Starring: Moon So-ri, Kim Sun-young, Jang Yoon-ju, Cho Han-cheul, Hyun Bong-sik, Kim Ga-hee,


Three Sisters is the latest feature from Lee Seung-won, a writer and director with a background in theatre. Much like his two previous films, Communication & Lies (2015) and especially Happy Bus Day (2017), it plies the territory of damaged people and broken family relations. The main difference with Three Sisters compared to Lee’s earlier works is that it is less abrasive due to its finely polished visual sheen and also its script which sneaks tragedy on audiences behind black comedy and a non-linear narrative. These varying tones serve Lee’s desire to show acting at its best as he provides his leads with drama found through well-realised characters dealing with an explosive legacy.

The story centres on three sisters, each of whom is a mother to a family but very different. Eldest sister Hee-sook (Kim Sun-young) works as a florist. Cash-strapped, divorced, and dowdy, she is saddled with a deadbeat ex-husband and demanding daughter who both treat her like a doormat. Youngest sister Mi-ok (Jang Yoon-ju) is kind of a female Charles Bukowski whose hard drinking and mean attitude match her profession of playwright better than the man she married, a kind-hearted greengrocer who came complete with a level-headed teenage son, both of whom Mi-ok neglects. In a massive contrast to her siblings is the more glamorous middle sister Mi-yeon (Moon So-ri), a highly controlled woman who is a devout Christian living in the lap of luxury with her handsome university professor husband and their two children who live maybe a little in fear of their choir-master mother.

While the three sisters display a believable intimacy, we wonder how they can be related. They each occupy a different class, live in a different area, and their occupations, behaviour, and outward appearance are poles apart as demonstrated in the first hour of the film which goes all in on quotidian details and finds comedy of the personality clash variety. By cutting between their perspectives, we see how the negative traits of the more maladjusted sisters sends them skittering from one social faux pas to another while Mi-yeon seems to remain stable and forbearing of others. It isn’t long before crises reveal the extent of their derangement.

Philandering husbands, errant children, and a cancer diagnosis drag out the drama and while the negative traits these women use in their struggle to cope continue to provoke laughter, the gap between what they intended to happen and the result is where tragedy lies. Mi-yeon’s exertion of control sends her veering into the sort of revenge that Old Testament God might appreciate as she physically punishes her husband’s perky mistress. Hee-sook’s subservient behaviour reaches levels so pathetic, a masochist would be embarrassed. Mi-ok, the most comically outrageous of the three due to her drunkenness, desperately tries to change into something better for the sake of her family but alienates them more.

As their travails play out and their negative traits cause them to increasingly become unstuck the film places a sort of deadline on its story with a family gathering for the father’s birthday. It also intersperses black-and-white flashbacks and scenes where the sisters have conversations full of foreshadowing and subtext that helps us cut through the comedy prepares us as we get to the heart of this tragicomic narrative. Audiences will probably guess that they are all manifesting some trauma, but the full extent of it is only revealed in a final extended flashback which is handled so adroitly that viewers will likely gasp as it is like ripping off a scab and looking at the raw wound of their shared pasts. It helps us understand how pain has shaped the characters we were previously laughing at and pitying as we come to empathise with them in what proves to be a pretty amazing dramatic turn around.

Three Sister Film Image

As stated in the opening paragraph, the film was originally intended as a showcase for the acting talents of its leads and each lady demonstrates the sort of deeply layered performances that, while having extremes, bring out the complications in their characters without breaking a sense of reality. Model-turned-actress Jang Yoon-ju, whose only other major credit was a cop in the 2015 action film Veteran, essays her slatternly character with major doses of anger and sadness that are balanced with so-real-it-hurts desperate attempts at self-control. Kim Sun-young, a veteran performer who has appeared in Lee’s two previous films, is entirely sympathetic as a woman who only knows how to survive by assuaging everyone through acquiescence and apologies. Moon So-ri gives a stellar performance of self-possession that masks an icy rage. Each actor convincingly portrays someone left with the indelible mark of abuse, exhibiting it, and yet struggling to overcome it.

While the comedy leavens the familial dilemmas, the moments where characters are suffering emotional anguish in their search for a way out of their torment is painfully realised by the performers who can balance the light and dark aspects of this complicated story. The characters, settings and conflicts are easy to relate to and with the big reveal, we finally learn that they do share something in common, that their differences and character personality faults come from the same trauma and it never once feels like a movie contrivance. We care enough due to the performers that we hope that they can heal their broken minds.

Three Sisters was screened at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2021 on March 05th. It will be screened again on March 14th at ABC Hall.

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