“Hansel and Gretel” is Korean director Im Pil Seong’s follow up to his debut “Antarctic Journal”, a slow moving slice of ambiguous horror which although visually impressive managed to confound as much as it did chill. For his sophomore outing he has taken a similarly offbeat approach, drawing upon the traditional fairytale for a meditation on cruelty and lost innocence. The result is a film that defies expectation and which thankfully avoids pretty much all of the clichés of the modern Korean horror genre to offer something far more disturbing and interesting.
The film starts as a young man called Eun Soo (actor Chun Jeong Myung, recently in “The Aggressives”) crashes his car in the middle of a thick forest while arguing on the phone with his pregnant girlfriend about having abandoned her to rush to the aid of his sick mother. He wakes up in darkness, deep in the trees, with a twelve-year-old girl called Yeong Hee (young television actress Eun Kyeong Shim) standing watch over him. She leads him to the picture perfect fairytale house that she shares with her older brother Man Bok (Won Jae Eun, “Maundy Thursday”), younger sister Jeong Sun (Ji Hui Jin, also in “A Man who was Superman” and “Cello”) and their parents. Although Eun Soo is grateful for their help, it’s quite obvious that something is very wrong with the seemingly loving family. Unfortunately, his efforts to leave the following morning are thwarted after he gets lost in the forest, only to find his way back to the house. Returning after failing again the next day, he finds that the parents have disappeared, leaving a note behind asking him to take care of the children. Having little choice in the matter, the increasingly desperate Eun Soo tries to get to the bottom of the strange goings on, until matters are further complicated by the arrival of the sinister Deacon Byeon (Hie Sun Park, recently in “Seven Days” and who also worked with the director on “Antarctic Journal”) and his unpleasant wife.
Although marketed as such and despite the obvious comparisons with Kim Ji Won’s “A Tale of Two Sisters”, “Hansel and Gretel” is not really a horror film, much in the same way that “Pan’s Labyrinth” from director Guillermo del Toro is not. Rather, it is a slice of darkly imaginative fantasy that plays out cleverly from the perspective not only of the childlike Eun Soo, but also from that of the three youngsters. This is not to say that the film is devoid of scares, as Im throws in a good number of frights to help keep the viewer on the edge of the seat, particularly during the early stages. Indeed, the film is a tense affair, disorienting and mysterious, with the plot developing in pleasingly complex and nicely paced fashion. However, Im wisely chooses to keep things restrained, and although grotesque in places the film is suggestive rather than overtly gruesome. This works very well, as it allows the proceedings to retain a kind of childlike innocence despite the subject matter and some of the more disturbing scenes. Furthering this are several moments of genuine wonder and magic, which really help to give it a unique and creative feel, and lift it well above other less ambitious genre films.
The psychological aspects of the film are similarly effective, as Im allows the story to gradually unveil the dark secrets behind the children and the house in a manner which implies and hints rather than simply patronising the viewer with trite answers. Aside from some rather clumsy exposition towards the end, this approach lends the proceedings a certain ambiguity, though thankfully without the frustrating obscurity of “Antarctic Journal”. This having been said, the film does require a certain suspension of disbelief during the latter stages, when the narrative takes a few odd and surreal turns, though for those willing to go along for the ride it serves up an interesting and gripping conclusion.
Visually, the film is gorgeous, with a truly distinctive look. Im shows an incredible eye for detail, with the house itself being an immaculate creation, filled with decorations, old-fashioned toys, odd furniture and candy. His use of colour is quite astounding, and the film is both bright and harmonious, yet unsettling at the same time, allowing for an underlying theme of menace that is constantly lurking. The surrounding forest plays a similar role to that of the ice and snow in his debut film, almost acting as a character itself, luscious and primal, keeping the characters trapped both physically and symbolically.
This unique look is the icing on the cake, and “Hansel and Gretel” stands as one of the most interesting and unsettling Korean films of the year, and is a work of considerable imagination. Difficult to categorise, whilst it may disappoint genre fans expecting blood or overt scares, it frightens far more effectively through its depiction of innocence abused and of the worst of human nature. At the same time, Im somehow manages to work in a certain pureness of heart and hope that transforms it into a surprisingly emotional viewing experience, making it all the more rewarding.
Pil-Sung Yim (director) / Pil-Sung Yim, Min-sook Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-myeong Cheon … Eun-Soo
Sim Eun-kyung … Young Hee
Yeong-Nam Jang … Soojeong
Ji-hee Jin … Jung Soon
Kyeong-ik Kim … Youngsik
Hee-soon Park … Deacon – byun
Eun Won-jae … Manbok