By Lisa Morton
Really, I hadn’t planned on doing yet another South Korean entry this time around. I was going to write eloquently about SONG AT MIDNIGHT, the 1937 Chinese classic that may just be the great granddaddy of all Asian horror films…
…but then I saw Yim Pil-sung’s 2007 HANSEL AND GRETEL, and both SONG AT MIDNIGHT and my eloquence flew out the figurative window.
If you think that means HANSEL AND GRETEL is extraordinary, you’re right. It’s easily the most interesting Korean horror film since Kim Ji-woon’s 2003 classic A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, and it’s probably no coincidence that both films draw their inspiration from fairy tales. However, where TWO SISTERS picks up from a traditional Korean story, Yim spins his layered and complex story from a head-on collision of east meets west. Think a Grimm’s fairy tale (or Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH, which HANSEL AND GRETEL has been frequently compared to, and which I frankly think it trumps) walked through a Korean haunted house, and you’ll start to get some idea.
The story starts with a young man, Eun-soo, losing control of his car on an isolated road. He awakens to find a red-caped young girl, Young-hee, standing over him. She leads him through the dense forest to a picturesque house, where Eun-soo meets the rest of her family, including her older brother Man-bok and younger sister Jung-soon. Everything in the house is plainly geared to accommodate the children: The décor is colorful and whimsical, the diet made up of cupcakes and cookies, and the parents a little too loving. After mom and dad mysteriously vanish, Eun-soo tries to find his own way back, but time and again he loses his way in the forest, only to return to the house. When other adults arrive, Man-bok’s edge of anger reveals itself more and more, and Eun-soo realizes he’s trapped with the children, who want him to become their “uncle”. Is the source of the children’s power their storybook copy of HANSEL AND GRETEL, or does the increasingly aggressive Man-bok hold the answer?
To say more would be to give away some of the many delicious twists of the script. Just know that this turns out to be neither a non-supernatural psychological thriller (there’s an attic that becomes a maze, a human doll, and people who are punished by being turned into trees), nor a gentle fantasy (one hard-to-watch sequence involves graphic child abuse and suggested molestation). Like the afore-mentioned PAN’S LABYRINTH, HANSEL AND GRETEL isn’t afraid to show the excessive cruelty that drives these children into a fantasy world; in fact, its images of children being starved and beaten are far more intense than a thousand tortureporn scenes. And because this is a sort of inverted version of the traditional tale of two children who trap a wicked witch in her oven, there is indeed a disturbing sequence of a character being roasted alive and even some graphic cannibalism.
But this isn’t just a wild funhouse ride. Yim's film isn't afraid to ask big questions: Does fantasy empower us, or cripple us? Is our notion of innocent childhood nothing but a fiction created by embittered adults? One of the children repeatedly asks Eun-soo, “Are children happy in your world?”, and the young man – who was himself abandoned by his mother at a young age – has no honest answer. Comfort is fleeting in HANSEL AND GRETEL; traditional sources of care including adults, family, and religion (the most vicious adult visitor claims to be a deacon) are all revealed as shams.
And yet, remarkably, HANSEL AND GRETEL is not overwhelmingly depressing or relentlessly grim (no pun intended). The remarkable set design by Ryu Seong-hie (who also provided the superb design for OLD BOY and THE HOST) gives the film a delightfully cluttered and vibrant look. Yim and Ryu have also packed the film with sly and amusing nods to the mayhem underlining it all: Toys are blood-stained, rabbits have the manic stare of something from David Lynch’s world, and a running cartoon on the house’s ancient black-and-white television set depicts stuffed animals mauling each other.
Also noteworthy is Lee Byung-woo’s sumptuous score. The music bears some resemblance to the rich, tragedy-infused work Lee composed for A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, but incorporates children’s voices as well, producing one of the loveliest and most haunting soundtracks heard in years.
Sadly, Yim doesn’t seem to have produced another feature film in the three years since HANSEL AND GRETEL (which apparently received mixed response in Korea, where audiences were somewhat puzzled by the western references, which include a visit from Santa Claus and cowboys-and-indians sheets on one bed). Likewise, his star Cheon Jeong-myeong, who imbues Eun-soo with both great likability and a wonderful sense of tragedy, hasn’t appeared in a feature film since. Here’s hoping that not only will we see more work especially from the gifted Yim soon, but that we’ll see more films that can come close to achieving HANSEL AND GRETEL’s level of art, visuals, and wrenching emotions.