The Brothers Grimm’s infamous fairytale gets a sinister update in Yim Phil-Sung’s second movie…
Waking from a car accident, Lee Eun-Soo (Chun Jeong-Myoung) finds himself lost in deep, dark forest. A serene young girl rescues him from the site, leading him to her family home, ominously titled the ‘House of Happy Children’. There he finds her older brother, younger sister, and parents luridly drench in prime coloured clothing like something out of the fifties, surrounded in a house full of children’s toys and ornaments, animal masks and paintings of adults with rabbits heads.
Though friendly, he notices the parents behave oddly, seeming almost nervous of his presence. With his mobile unable to connect and the home phone apparently out of order. The next morning he sets out to make it into town to let his pregnant wife and ill mother know he is okay, but no sooner is he on his way than night seems to fall, some eight hours early and he finds himself lost. Returning to the house he hopes to try again the next day, only to find the children crying, complaining that their parents have left them.
Eun-Soo soon realises that there is more to the children and the forest they inhabit than meets the eye, and strange noises and stranger dreams start to impel his escape from the forest and return to his life outside. But then a new couple is brought to the house, including a deeply unsettling deacon.
Exquisitely shot, Yim Phil-Sung’s updated fable creates serious menace around the children and the house they inhabit. The individual style of the house, with rabbit masks and shockingly colourful decoration, bring to mind the claustrophobia of the home in Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale Of Two Sisters. The children themselves, superbly acted by our young stars, are in their own way just as scary as that kid from the original Omen film. He cleverly explores the children’s morality, their fairytale-skewed view of right and wrong. All cakes for breakfast and any toy they can imagine.
There’s no doubting that those acquainted with the Twilight Zone movie segment It’s A Good Life, or even the original show that came from, will find the idea of children whose any wish comes true rather familiar. The film also pays homage to The Evil Dead, with it’s inescapable forest seemingly cut off from any reality we know and trees that come to life.
It’s brought comparisons to author Angela Carter and her very adult retelling of fairytales, whose books were made into The Company Of Wolves and The Magic Toyshop. Yet in many respects Phil-Sung’s work lacks their bleakness, instead mirroring the equally mythical nature of some of Guillermo Del Toro’s work, like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Like Del Toro, Phil-Sung finds that no monster that lives within a child’s imagination is any match for the evil that can live within adults.
Constantly building, that menace is often more powerful than the films more traditional ‘horror-shocks’, becoming almost unbearable, then something happens… As the film seems to come to it’s incendiary conclusion that narrative suddenly changes pace showing us the torturous origins of the children. It’s an oddly lengthy recounting, stuck slap bang in the middle of the most action-packed part of the film.
Though it makes the children’s characters entirely sympathetic, it also changes the nature of the film, then becoming a near saccharine, Christmas story not unlike the conclusion of Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengence. Something of a It’s A Wonderful Life revelation, there’s no doubting the power of the sentiment here, yet it seems a somehow wasted and overly moralistic finale that misses out on something even more powerful.
Nonetheless Hansel And Gretel is an enchantingly filmed and beautifully played fable.
Hansel And Gretel was shown as part of the London Film Festival 2008. This post was originally published 29 October 2008.
Hansel And Gretel is available on UK Blu-Ray and DVD from Terracotta Distribution.
Home media details
Distributor: Terracotta Distribution (UK)
Edition: Blu-Ray (2012)
Returning to one of their earliest releases, Terracotta represent Hansel and Gretel with a solid Blu-Ray release. It's a good transfer, though the film condition isn't quite as crisp as you might like. (Though bear in mind that this is one film where you're not supposed to see any more detail in the dark scenes, they're meant to be abstract.)
This edition is packed with extras, including Making Of; Behind The Scenes; an interview with special effects director Jung Seong-jin; an interview with production designer Ryu Seung-hie; director and cast interviews; recommendations from other Korean directors(?); teaser and trailer; and trailers and featurettes on Terracotta and other releases. This restores more of the original features than the original DVD release (I think!), though not some of the more interesting content from the now (very) out-of-print original Korean DVD release, particularly the deleted scenes. (But honestly, that would have been a really big ask!)
A welcome step into Blu-ray for Terracotta – let's hope we see some more of the stronger releases soon! :)
Distributor: Terracotta Distribution (UK)
Edition: DVD (2009)
Special features include; ‘Making of' featurette; interview with production designer, Ryu Seong-hee; teaser trailer.