There’s no denying that most people who watch today’s film will never know what it feels like to be a North Korean defector, yet Keola Racela’s Two Sisters reminds us that movies can transport us thousands of miles across the world, into the lives of others. Following a pair of young siblings as they attempt to defect to South Korea, the older of the two girls must face the unthinkable, in this gut wrenching tale of sisterhood.
“What I was hoping to do was humanize and make relatable the struggles and tragedies that these defectors face”
The inspiration for Two Sisters came from real-life defectors. When Sarah Oh, the co-writer and producer came to Racela with her story, he was immediately taken with the weight of the subject matter, diving head-first in a dark reality that he didn’t know existed.
Faced with the responsibility of telling a story that brings a contemporary human rights issue into the public sphere, Racela and Oh set out to South Korea where they listened to first-hand accounts from North Korean defectors. Associating real human experiences to their work of fiction, Racela was tasked with bringing forth his own empathy onto the screen, cinematically crafting a film that is chilling to the bone.
“What I was hoping to do was humanize and make relatable the struggles and tragedies that these defectors face”, Racela tells S/W. “To take this harrowing real-life story and have people with little knowledge or interest in something that is, to them, happening in some far corner of the world, and make them not only sit up and take notice, but have them relate to it on a core human level.”
Stripping away the political undercurrent that colors the story arc, Two Sisters is fundamentally about sisterhood. As someone who has a sister, witnessing the horror between characters Mi-Jin (So-Ri Park) and Yoo-Jin (Hye-Eun Jung) realized my worst fears, capturing an authentic portrait of adolescence along the way.
With dialogue that cleverly dances around impending doom, it portrays the combative nature and unquestionable love between sisters while also conveying their age differences. Like many older siblings, Mi-Jin feels compelled to protect her younger sister and ultimately makes the greatest sacrifice in doing so. It’s with a heavy heart I warn you that nothing will quite prepare you for the film’s harrowing conclusion, even if predictable.
While the narrative may be a bit conventional, Racela sets the stage for his characters in an incredibly visual way. Between rain machines, a water tank for underwater filming, and slick camera movements, the film feels more like a feature production than a short. If that’s not commitment to the craft, Racela tells S/W that his crew shot in a river that may or may not have been populated by snakes.
A short that artfully builds tension that is altogether gripping, Two Sisters has an “it factor” that certainly raises the bar. This isn’t just a film about sisters on the run, but rather a tale that inspires empathy for what to most people is a tragic occurrence, in a distant part of the world. By humanizing North Korean defectors and depicting their story with such visual tenacity, it’s a film that you won’t easily forget.
Keola recently premiered his debut feature Porno at SXSW – the story of how five young movie theater employees release a sex demon when they discover a mysterious old film can in the basement – keep an eye out for it at a film festival near you.