Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Asian horror films are known for a single iconic image… the long, black hair of a creepy, ghostly, Asian girl pissed off for some reason or other and out for revenge. It’s no exaggeration to say that over 95% of the horror films from Japan, Korea, and Thailand play on some variation of that theme. (That may in fact be an exaggeration.) But once in a while a film gets released where the terrors and mysteries stem from someplace other than spectral vengeance. Take Hansel & Gretel for example… a dark, Korean re-imagining of a classic fairy tale (that still manages to include one shot of long, creepy, black hair pouring down from a trapdoor).
Eun-soo has a car accident while passing through a forest late at night and awakens to find a young girl in a red cloak offering him assistance. She leads him deep into the woods to her house where he meets her parents and two siblings. The family appears happy, especially the children, even if the parents do seem a bit apprehensive and nervous. The house is garishly decorated in holiday themes and kiddie designs, dinner is a plateful of cupcakes and cookies, and no one seems all that interested in helping Eun-soo find his way out of the forest and back home. Every attempt to leave leads him right back to the house and to the children. Soon the parents have gone missing, a mysterious new couple has arrived, and Eun-soo discovers the dangerous and tragic secret behind it all.
It’s not entirely accurate to call Hansel & Gretel a straight horror film as it’s interested in far more than simple scares. There’s a general sense of creepiness and dread and a handful of jump scares throughout, but the movie’s atmosphere extends well beyond the horrific. Like any fairy tale worth it’s weight in morality and metaphor the movie explores real world cruelty in a fantastic setting for maximum effect. The original Brothers Grimm story serves as a starting point, but the film is more interested in where brutality and lost innocence can lead if left unchecked.
The movie does slow down too much in the middle and could stand to trim some of Eun-soo’s endless wandering, but aside from that there’s very little to criticize here. The film looks beautiful both inside and out of the candy-colored house, and the score by Byung-woo Lee is haunting and playful and helps set the mood for each scene. All of this would be for naught if the child actors weren’t any good, but thankfully all three of them give stellar performances. Ji-hee Jin is absolutely adorable and heartbreaking as the youngest child who’s the first to accept the adults at face value and the most vulnerable to their cruelty. Eun-kyung Sim is her older sister who is sadly wise beyond her years, and Won-jae Eun plays the older brother as the fierce protector forced to be stronger then he’d like. As the events unfold and the secrets are revealed you can’t help but want to hug the little bastards and tell them everything will be all right. Even if it may just be a lie…
For all the visual highlights within the film the standout scene is a short storyteller duel between Eun-soo and the young boy, Man-bok. Eun-soo tells a tale to the girls about a sorrowful prince trapped in a world of faeries but who needs to return home to his own princess, and Man-bok hijacks the story in order to soothe his sisters by keeping the prince in their world. It’s a fascinating back and forth between a man who still acts like a boy and a boy forced to act like a man. And if the initial setup for Hansel & Gretel sounds suspiciously like the “It’s a Good Life” episode of The Twilight Zone the similarity is intentional. Co-writer/director Phil-sung Yim (Antarctic Journal) combined the initial fairy tale inspiration with his love for American TV shows like Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. He’s done a fantastic job of invoking the flavor and feel of those shows but has wrapped in all in a uniquely Korean experience.
Fans of the dark fantastic should seek out Hansel & Gretel immediately. The film never reaches the extremes of horror or comedy or pathos, but you will find yourself at times fearful, amused, and saddened. Childhood wonder and harsh reality combine as it explores what it means to grow up and what it takes to become an adult. The children need Eun-soo’s help just as much as he needs theirs, but is it too late for either lesson to be learned? Heart-wrenching and creepy, sweet and cruel, and ultimately deeply moving, Hansel & Gretel would make the Brothers Grimm very proud indeed.
Hansel & Gretel was released on DVD this past summer by a relatively new label from Canada called Evokative Films. They don’t have very many releases yet, but they seem to value quality over quantity in both their special features and DVD packaging. This title features interviews, behind-the-scenes features (including a very sweet and endearing piece set to the song “All You Need Is Love”), trailers, and two short films from the director. It comes in a stylish and detailed digipack made from 100% recycled materials and is just an overall sharp looking package. Evokative Films just recently acquired the rights to Ole Bornedal’s highly praised Deliver Us From Evil.