DIRECTED BY: Pil-Sung Yim
FEATURING: Jeong-Myeong Cheon, Hee-soon Park, Shim Eun-Kyung, Eun Won-Jae
PLOT: Eun-Soo, a young man whose girlfriend has just told him she is pregnant, crashes his car on a lonely road and finds himself rescued by a young girl, who leads him to a strange cottage hidden in the depths of a dense forest. The family living there tend his wounds and put him to bed. His gratitude soon turns to fear, as the “parents” disappear and he is left in charge of three children who have no intention of letting him leave.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: Much as I love this film I doubt it makes the final cut. Yes, it’s odd, beautiful and moving, but it could stand more ruthless editing, something it shares with the director’s previous Antarctic Journal. The storyline is predictable in parts, especially if you’ve seen a number of “bad seed” films. The style makes it stand out but, honestly, some of the weird scares seem to be a little misplaced. Hansel and Gretel‘s weirdness seems tattooed on rather than bred in the bone.
COMMENTS: Watching Hansel and Gretel is like settling down to enjoy a nice cup of tea and a fondant fancy, only to discover that your cake is crawling with ants. The set design is fascinating; wherever you look there is some odd detail that catches the eye. The color palette is lush, just the green of the woods is breathtaking. The score is beautiful, composed by Byung-Woo Lee, who also composed the music for the sublime Tale Of Two Sisters.
In short this is a quality production, clearly made with love. What prevents it from quite firing on all cylinders is the plot, which is a little predictable. Sinister children with dangerous powers are something of a staple of the science-fiction and horror genres, and anyone who’s seen or read a few such stories will be fairly confident about where this is headed. From the moment Eun-Soo sets foot in the fairy tale cottage where every day is Christmas Day and the decor makes your retinas bleed, our suspicions are roused. They’re all but confirmed by the behavior of the “parents”. Their rictus grins and desperate eyes scream that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. They handle their “son” as if he’s a box of sweaty gelignite and it soon becomes apparent that he possesses the same destructive power.
When the “parents” disappear, Eun-Soo is left in charge. Desperate to leave, but loathe to abandon the children, he shows himself to be kind and protective towards them. There’s a real sense of how trapped he is. The dense forest repels every attempt to navigate an escape. The normal rules of time and space do not apply, and we learn that this strangeness extends to the attic of the cottage as well.
Our odd little family unit are soon joined by another couple rescued from car trouble on that suspiciously unsafe stretch of road. The appallingly creepy Deacon Byun and his cold faced wife quickly size up the unprotected children and the piles of expensive knickknacks and trouble begins to brew.
Before the story is over we’ll have seen terrible violence, suggested cannibalism, women trapped in trees and a doorway in the forest that leads to a child’s library of fear and frustrated hope. The shocks and scares of Hansel and Gretel are fairly predictable, but there are moments of dreamy weirdness that stay with you long after, such as the little wooden angel taking flight as Eun-Soo tells a fairy story. What sticks in the mind about this film though isn’t really the “what the hell!” moments, it’s the exploration of family relationships.
Eun-Soo was on the phone to his pregnant girlfriend when he crashed. She was berating him for not being there when she needed him. Later he tells a story to the two female children, a thinly disguised tale of his own life. Distanced from his girlfriend, estranged from his dying mother, he seems to be a man struggling to maintain relationships. During his week with the children though he grows as a man, becoming a kind, brave protector and genuinely growing to love them. Tragically, it’s this very personal growth that makes him unable to consider staying. Eun-Soo longs to return to his world and become a good father to his unborn child.
There is a real thread of melancholy in this tale. Certainly the children commit acts of awful cruelty, but a disturbing flashback reveals that they are really only behaving as their terrible past has taught them. In particular, the elder girl shows why she began to play the role of conciliator, and it’s a truly sickening revelation. Even after acquiring their powers the children still yearn for an adult to care for them, to protect them, to show them love. Time and again they are frustrated and betrayed by the grown ups they meet. When they do eventually find someone up to the task they realize that they have to let him go so that he can be a father to his own child back in his own world.
Twice, the elder girl asks whether children are always happy in Eun-Soo’s world. The second time is during the melancholy epilogue when the question seems addressed to us, the audience. The answer sadly is no, they are not. It’s this question, rather than the giant stuffed rabbits and mystery meat in the fridge, that comes back to haunt me days after viewing Hansel and Gretel.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Pic’s mix of horror, humor and surreality doesn’t bother being faithful to the titular fairy tale, though its nerve-jangling narrative of three kids left in a weird old house without proper guidance has dark magic to spare.”–Rob Nelson, Variety (contemporaneous)