Let it be said from the outset that writer and director Seung-Won Lee intimately understands the experience of having siblings. Through his latest work, Three Sisters, he gives us a snapshot of a family in crisis and the relationships that sustain us all.
Oldest sister Hee-Sook (Kim Sun-Young) is a devoted wife and mother to her husband and daughter. When she finds out she has cancer, she conceals it from everyone, attempting to maintain the family role she has been assigned. She gains no respect from her husband and daughter, and they continually take her and her work for granted. K-drama fans will recognize Kim from her work in Crash Landing on You and Hospital Playlist.
In classic oldest daughter fashion, she essentially becomes invisible in so many of her relationships. She is often only seen in the context of other relationships and what she can provide. Like so many eldest daughters, she is the de facto caregiver for her family despite the health and other issues she herself faces.
Middle sister Mi-Yeon (Moon So-Ri, of The Handmaiden fame) is married to a distinguished professor, and is her church’s choir director. She discovers her husband is having an affair with a singer in her choir, and must choose how to respond. In her character, we see the intersection of culture and religion and the ways they can both be used to keep women captive to the idea of maintaining appearances.
Through Mi-Yeon, the audience is shown the extent to which women will go to maintain appearances, and maintain illusions of perfection within the family unit. The audience can’t help but feel such immense sympathy for a woman whose own needs and wants are so often eclipsed by those of her family. Mi-Yeon is a perfect example of how we so often look to picture perfect families who seem to have it all together, without realizing the deep undercurrent of turmoil that’s often underneath. As is so often the case with middle children, her needs are so often lost until a crisis forces a confrontation.
Finally, youngest sister Mi-Ok (Jang Yoon-Ju) is a playwright who married a divorced man in a fit of anger and impulsivity. She struggles with alcoholism and has to navigate her relationships with her husband and stepson, as well as her artist colleagues who frankly seem to be unsure of how to act around her most of the time with her increasingly erratic behaviour.
Through Mi-Ok, we see the very real struggle that people living with addiction experience every day, and how it impacts their family who love them. It’s a testament to just how serious of an illness addiction is, that it not only impacts every facet of their lives, but very often the daily lives of those they love. The audience can’t help but be heartbroken when watching a woman who just wants to be loved but often can’t seem to accept it from those closest to her.
All three sisters battle their own demons, and come together for their father’s birthday party. The reappearance of their brother and youngest sibling brings all of the family’s struggles and secrets to the forefront. Although the reveal of the family secret is fairly predictable, it is no less shocking and horrifying to watch. The movie strikes a balance between showing the reality of domestic violence with sensitivity that is often lacking when portraying it in the media.
When everything comes to a head, it’s messy, cringey to watch, and yet it’s all too real. Families are so complex, and when secrets are kept for so many years, the truth always comes out eventually. Jin-Seob was the character that was the most difficult to place, and it almost would have made more sense to either eliminate his storyline entirely, or add more screen time so the character could be more flushed out.
Three Sisters is such a strong character study, and it will hopefully reach the same level of success that so many other Korean movies and TV shows have gained in North America. It’s at times a challenging movie to watch, but definitely worth it in the end.
Reel Asian is a Toronto film festival with year-round programming highlighting Asian and Diaspora stories.