Directed and co-written by Pil-Sung Yim, Hansel & Gretel is a South Korean masterpiece that uses a Brothers Grimm palette to paint a dark fantasy/horror film.
Driving through a mountainous area by a forest, Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) is on the phone arguing with his pregnant girlfriend about his decision to see his sick mother. In mid-argument his car crashes. Injured and in shock, Eun-Soo stumbles into the forest and gets hopelessly lost.
As night falls, he stumbles across a young girl holding a lantern. She is Young Hee (Eun-kyung Shim) and she leads Eun-Soo to a fairytale cottage deep in the woods. Once there, he meets her “family.” Older brother Manbok (Eun Won-jae), little sister Jung Soon (Ji-hee Jin) and their “parents” all welcome Eun-Soo to the house.
As he is still in shock from the accident Eun-Soo does not notice the strained atmosphere in the house. But we do. The parents are too eager, too ready to please and the children are disconcerting. After offers of help, Eun-Soo is treated to a children’s version of a meal; all sweets and pastries and ice cream.
Eun-Soo will soon discover that all is not what it seems and after the parents disappear, he discovers that the children are not what they appear to be and that a new arrival to the “house of happy children” may kill them all.
Pil-Sung has done a brilliant job with this film. The European fairytale theme is omnipresent in the film. The paintings on the wall, the furniture, the colours of the house and its many rooms all scream Brothers Grimm, including the very house itself. The location of the house and its secrets are in the deepest part of the forest and like the original Hansel and Gretel, each time Eun-Soo tries to find his way out he gets lost. This prompts Young Hee to tell him that he needs to place bread crumbs on his trail.
The music is evocative of the darkest fairy tale imaginable; it is vaguely reminiscent of a Danny Elfman score in places and overall sets the mood of the action brilliantly. The mixture of the music and the story can put you instantly in the emotional mood of the scenes. Eerie, sad, forlorn, scary, and magical, the score fits perfectly.
The young actors playing the children are beyond brilliant. They convey the longing for real parents to love them and protect them. The children can then “turn” and be damned scary and creepy when it looks like they won’t get their most heartfelt wish. Eun-Soo grows up while he is with the children and his ordeal makes him realize what is really important in his life.
Later in the film when the children lure another couple to the house, Byun (Hee-soon Park) and his not very pleasant wife. Byun says that he is a man of the cloth, in reality he is a twisted and sick child murderer; his wife is never explained, but it doesn’t matter as she does not last long in the house and is one nasty bit of work. Hee-soon Park is terrifying as the serial killer who is so incredibly dark and scary.
This film is unforgettable and is easily one of the best to come out of South Korea. The imagery and the back story of the children, added to the confusion of what is really going on make a scary, disturbing thriller and yet it tugs at the heart-strings while arousing feelings of anger and pain for what is going on and what happened in the past.
Amazingly this film was panned in South Korea as being “too European.” While that is somewhat puzzling, the film is brilliant and I have a copy in my collection that is watched often.
Every once in a while, I find a film that defies any sort of star rating system. Hansel and Gretel is one of those films. If you do not watch any other film from South Korea, make sure that you watch this one. It terms of greatness it rivals Kim Jee-Woon‘s A Tale of Two Sisters.
Hansel and Gretel will stay with you long after you have seen it and if you can watch the ending of the film and not have at least a lump in your throat the size of Texas, something is wrong.
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