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Hansel And Gretel
cast: Cheon Jeong-myeong, Sim Eun-kyung, Eun Won-jae, and Jang Yeong-nam

director: Yim Pil-sung

117 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Fusion Media DVD Region 2 retail
[released 4 April]

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Some stories seem to be written with cast iron skeletons. While the passing of the years may strip the cultural flesh from their mighty bones, the shape of these stories is so iconic and universal that merely draping them with the skin of modern context is enough to provide a work that is both timeless and timely. Consider for example, Rouben Mamoulian's 1930 adaptation of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And My Hyde (1886), a brilliantly acted piece dealing with the costs and benefits of social taboos while Alastair Reid's 1981 TV version cast Hyde as a drug-fuelled sensualist, rebelling against the stiff-necked virtue and repression of Dr Jekyll. Recent years have seen the brothers Grimm's Hansel And Gretel receive a similar level of interest as its story of child abandonment and adult consumption has been mapped neatly onto modern-day paedophile scares by works such as the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode Gingerbread, and Margo Langan's short story The Goosle. This Hansel And Gretel film is a South Korean horror-fantasy which continues the trend for reinterpreting the story, but director Yim Pil-Sung and writer Kim Min-sook take a rather more liberal approach to adaptation than one might expect from a film bearing this particular title.

Eun-soo (Cheon Jeong-myeong) arrives on our screens with the whiff of selfishness about him. While talking on his mobile phone, he juggles a pregnant girlfriend and an ailing mother but neither can touch him: they are a nuisance. Suddenly seeing something in the road, he slams on the breaks and sends his car flipping into the forest. Dazed and bloodied, he awakens to find Young-hee (Sim Eun-kyung), a pretty teenaged girl carrying a lantern, standing over him. She leads him back to the beautiful cottage she lives in, a place called 'the home of the happy children'. There, he meets the rest of the family, the tightly-wound older brother Man-bok (Eun Won-jae) and gappy-toothed younger sister Soo-jeong (Jang Yeong-nam).

Living with the children are their visibly jumpy parents who apologise profusely but their telephone is out of order. The inside of the house is a nightmare of kitsch 1950s' primary colours, sinister toys and a television that only plays a cartoon of a rabbit tearing apart a teddy bear. Eun-soo is invited to sit down to a plate of cakes and sweets, the parents claim that they allow the children to eat such things from time to time. After a couple of failed attempts at making his way back to the road, Eun-soo starts to sniff around the strange house and discovers that all is not as it seems... why are the parents arguing? Who is hiding in the trees? Waking one morning to find the parents gone, Eun-soo finds himself torn between the desire to look after the abandoned children, and find his way back to the road so that he can look after his mother and girlfriend. The children are most insistent that he stay. Then things start to go a bit mad.

As the children become evasive in their responses to his suggestions that they travel to town, Eun-soo starts to become frustrated and he takes out his frustrations on the children who display Village Of The Damned (1960)-style psychic powers. The children also bring home two other people they find in the forest and then things really start to go mad as neither of these people are as kind as Eun-soo. In fact, they're just as creepy as the children. Slowly the plot unravels and Eun-soo works out that the children have been alone for a long time, surviving thanks to their special powers and their numerous abortive attempts to build a family based upon people they have lured off the road. However, rather than portray them as monsters, the film is quick to explain the history of abuse and abandonment that motivates these children and, by feeling compassion for the children, Eun-soo learns to feel compassion for his mother and girlfriend.

Hansel And Gretel begins very well indeed with striking production design, some neat characterisation and a camera that moves with a good deal of fluidity and grace. It is undeniably a well-shot film. However, the initial setup established, the film really struggles to find the second, let alone third, gear that marks the progression of most horror films. Instead of building tension, the film's second act instead builds a sense of frustration as the film piles so many old tropes onto the plot that the entire story becomes stuck in a hideous narrative quagmire.

Hansel And Gretel is clearly a film that owes a lot less to recent Korean horror films than it does to the recent boom in Spanish works of gothic horror such as del Toro's The Devil's Backbone, and Pan's Labyrinth, as well as Juan Antonio Bayona's The Orphanage. Indeed, Hansel And Gretel is so similar to these works about abandoned children that I found myself having worked out what was going on about half an hour in. For many films this would not be a problem, but Hansel And Gretel is about two hours long and for at least an hour and a half of those two hours, the central protagonist is running around trying to work out what is going on. Hence the feelings of intense frustration...

Matters do not improve with the third act as the two extra adults grafted in to re-start the plot and provide a catalyst for change are transparently and ludicrously evil. They are so evil that they might as well turn up with 'special effects murder victim' stencilled across their T-shirts. Once these two are dispatched we are then treated to a 20-minute flashback in which Yim painstakingly spells out what everybody in the audience had worked out over an hour previously; blah blah child abuse, blah blah psychic powers, blah blah stay with us, blah blah it's magic. This sets up a ridiculously heavy-handed finale in which Eun-soo weeps and begs to be allowed to return to see his family.

Hansel And Gretel is a frustrating watch as the production design (by Ryu Seong-hie) and the visuals of the film are on a par with anything to come out of the del Toro stable. Unfortunately, Yim fails to imbue the story with any real tension and he bungles the denouement, waxing sentimental on issues that could have been glossed over while only alluding to genuinely chilling ideas such as the fact that the kids had been grinding their way through inadequate parents since the 1960s. Matters are not helped by the fact that the script is arguable too clever for its own sake. Instead of focussing on solid scares, decent chills and big fantastical ideas, the script gets bogged down in these ridiculously convoluted and utterly impenetrable themes of responsibility and selfishness and maturity, explored through this needlessly complex reinvention of the original story, that begins with the adult taking the role of the children while the children take the role of the witch only to switch back to the children being the children while all adults are the witch. Honestly, if you can make any sense of what point this film is trying to make then you are a more attentive viewer than I.

However, despite all of these problems, Hansel And Gretel is still half of a very decent horror/ fantasy film from a clearly ambitious director who is cosmopolitan enough to look beyond traditional K-horror works for his inspiration. The DVD features a 55-minute making-of featurette in which the director points out that he needed to make some changes to the script before he started shooting. Had he only hired someone else to do that job then we might very well have had something special on our hands.
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