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Hansel & Gretel (2007)
Director: Yim Pil-sung

review by Jim Steel

Korean films named for western myths and fairy tales are not expected, by now, to adhere to fidelity. What we often find is something analogous to Miles Davis' Porgy And Bess, where an original creation is used as scaffolding to build something entirely new. Kim Yong-gyun's The Red Shoes is a good example of how far this can go, and although Hansel & Gretel initially seems to have most of the original Grimm components, Yim has chopped them up and pasted them into a collage. This is no flippant mixing of analogies; the forest and the house resemble nothing so much as Dave McKean's artworks (albeit animated by Jan Svankmajer).

Eun-Soo (Cheon Jeong-myeong) enters this world from ours when he is driving along a long country road while juggling phone calls between his sick mother and his pregnant wife, and he looks up just in time to see something - a dead animal? a stuffed toy? - on the road ahead. He swerves and crashes. Now dazed, he wanders into the forest, rapidly becoming lost. Obviously an urbanite, the forest is an alien environment for him. It is a dank, green place with no points of reference, and night arrives suddenly leavening him trapped and helpless.

A light appears that promises rescue, and suddenly a girl in a red cape materialises in the light. This is Yeung Hye (Sim Eun-kynung) a girl who is out looking for her sister's hairclip. Her age only gradually becomes apparent (Sim was 13 at the time of filming) through the darkness, and the fact that she is on the cusp of adolescence is something that will be of relevance as the film unfolds. Eun-Soo regards her as a child, but others don't. They reach a fairy-tale house in the middle of the forest, where Eun-Soo's family look like a Korean version of the Eisenhower dream.

It's a psychedelic Norman Rockwell vision that is packed with toys and cakes, and, despite the strangeness, Eun-Soo starts to drift off and is put to bed in the guest room. He is too tired to notice or even care that the parents are quite obviously terrified. He leaves to go home the following day but finds himself back at the cottage by nightfall. The pattern is set. The 'parents', however, vanish, leaving a note asking him to look after the three children. The children initially seem manipulative in the way that all children are, but it gradually becomes apparent that they created and control this, their ideal universe. All they need for the outside are parents.

Eun-Soo, basically a decent man at heart, is trapped. The corners of this world have aspects of sheer terror; there is something moving in the attic; strange things are growing in the forest; and the boy, Manbok, (Eun Won-jae) has dangerously powerful psychic abilities. Space and time are not fixed properties. It's a waking nightmare for Eun-Soo, but a delight for the viewer. However, the balance changes in the second half of the film when Manbok leads two more adults back to the cottage. It is obvious to everyone apart from the children that two predators have just entered their world. The charismatic and sinister Deacon-byun (Park Hee-son, playing a Christian with the usual Korean ambivalence) and his girlfriend Soojeong (Janf Yeong-nam) think that they have stumbled upon unprotected riches and they soon start trying to take control.

This precipitates the start of the second half of the story, where everything is explained through sepia flashbacks. There is no Tim Burton-style vagueness from Yim. The children's past contains much mundane horror and they are lucky to even be alive at this stage. The earlier flashback horror, though initially appearing to be non-supernatural in origin, is layered on in such heavy slabs that it is really quite as fantastical as the first half. Unfortunately it is nowhere near as enjoyable (it manages to be both darker and less creepy, which takes some doing), and it gives the film a somewhat lopsided feel.

But overall the film is an exotic wonderland. The children, especially the two girls, put in fine performances, and Cheon Jeong-myeong is the perfect hook to hang the viewpoint on. The forest and the cottage are some of the most memorable places that have turned up in cinema so far this century and it is just a pity that, since it is nearly two hours long, Yim didn't see fit to trim it a little. It must also be said that on this edition some of the subtitling was a little bit idiosyncratic ('angles' for 'angels', for example), but it wasn't enough to pull you out of the film.
Hansel and Gretel

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