Director: Pil-Sung Yim
Screenplay: Pil-Sung Yim
Starring: Cheon Jeong Myeong, Shim Eun Kyeong, Eun Won-Jae, Jin Ji-Hee, Lydia Park
Duration: 117 min
Country: South Korea
BBFC Certification: 15
Children’s fairy tales (long before they were sanitised by Disney) were the horror stories of their time. Written as cautionary warnings to behave or face the consequences, classics such as the stories of Brothers Grimm and Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter have terrified children for centuries. Over the years many filmmakers have taken these tales as inspiration and produced some interesting contemporary adult horror stories – my particular favourites being the Freeway films by Matthew Wright. Over in Asia, filmmakers have also been creating horror films based on their own folklore for decades. In 2007, South Korean writer/director Pil-Sung Yim released Hansel and Gretel, a unique take on the classic Grimm fairy tale.
The story opens with Eun-Soo (Cheon Jeong Myeong) driving down a country road to visit his terminally ill mother. As he is on the phone with his pregnant girlfriend, he becomes distracted, crashes the car and stumbles dazed and bloody into the nearby forest and loses consciousness. As he comes to at night, he is discovered by a young girl called Yeong-Hee (Shim Eun Kyeong) who invites him back to her house to rest for the night.
Although he is greeted with open arms, Eun-Soo quickly discovers that there is something wrong with the family living in the house named “Home for Happy Children”. Why do they have cupcakes and sweets for breakfast? Why do the parents seem nervous around their children? And why are they arguing behind closed doors?
The next morning when Eun-Soo tries to find his way back to the road, he becomes trapped in the forest until the path leads him back to the house. Finding a note from the parents saying that they have to go away for a few days, Eun-Soo finds himself becoming a surrogate uncle to the children, but desperate to escape.
Hansel and Gretel blends elements of fantasy and horror to create a dark adult fairy tale with a twisted sense of humour. Many of the visuals are nightmarish – such as the woman transforming into a life-sized china doll, the forest of human trees and the attic that forms into a maze of endless corridors – all particularly effective and, in my mind, marks Pil-Sung Yim as the man to attempt a film (or more appropriately a TV series) of Mark Z Danielewski’s supposedly unfilmable novel House of Leaves.
Cheon Jeong Myeong is a charismatic lead who effortlessly runs the gamut of emotions as Eun-Soo, but this film is all about the three children, and all of the young actors give outstanding performances. Eun Won-Jae as Man-Bok, manages to switch from childhood naivety to menace with effortless ease. As the youngest cast member, Jin Ji-Hee as Jung-Soon should, by rights, be the weakest actor, but she is just as comfortable portraying the playful, giggling 7 year old as she is as the aggressive monster disembowelling a toy rabbit whilst proclaiming that the adults must die. It is Shim Eun Kyeong who gives the most engaging and moving performance however, as a girl whose devotion to her siblings has led her to endure such horrific torment in her life.
Production designer Ryu Seong-Hee has created an enchanting world that along with the sublime cinematography combines to create a fantastical and magical atmosphere. The design moves organically with the plot of the film – all bright colours and bright lighting initially, but as the story unfolds and the subject matter becomes darker, so does the colour palette and the lighting of sets. Special mention must also go to the film’s score, which succeeds in being playful with an underlying motif of dread.
I do have a couple of gripes with Hansel and Gretel though. I feel that the running time could easily have been trimmed by a good 15 minutes without losing anything and once the twist is revealed, the final act falls into the trap of using well-worn tropes. That being said, the film is a beautifully realised dark fantasy, with a developing thread of anxiety and suspense throughout. It will appeal to admirers of Asian horror as well as fans of the work of Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Jackson.
Hansel and Gretel is released on Blu-ray by 88 Films as part of their 88 Asia Collection and includes the following extras:
• Audio commentary with the director and Calum Waddell
• Introduction by the director
• Interview with cinematographer Ji-Jong Kim
• Interview with VFX director Jung-Seong-Jin
• Interview with pProduction designer Ryu Seong-Hee
• Teaser trailer
• Original trailer