Those of you who know me, or who follow my reviews, will know that I can’t stand the candy coated fantasy world of most children’s media. Don’t get me wrong, I love things like Winnie the Pooh, but when it comes down to it I have always been more interested in things like the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Frankly I’m utterly sick of the old Disney movies, having been exposed to tripe like Bambi and Snow White far too often – which may have been what inspired my love of Apple and Venison. The South Korean film Hansel and Gretel is a contemporary retelling of the original Grimm’s story, with an even darker take, mixing fairytale fantasy with a bleak and stylish horror.
After a crashing his car, Eun-Soo wakes up in a forest at night with a young girl standing over him holding a lantern (making one of the best and most iconic images of the film). Still disorientated and injured from his accident, the young girl leads him back to her family deep in the forest – an almost perfect happy family bearing a resemblance to the 1950’s ideal. Eun-Soo stays overnight with the family with the intention of leaving in the morning to find help, however when he ventures out he gets lost and ends up back with the family again. Soon he realises that he cannot escape the forest, and that things in the home are not as pleasant as they seem.
If you thought the girl from The Ring was creepy, or the girl from The Grudge, or pretty much any other creepy kid, then prepare to set yourself a new standard. Damien has nothing on these kids! Hansel and Gretel is a fantasy story foremost, and a horror secondly (think Pan’s Labyrinth but darker). While there is the traditional Hansel and Gretel story at the core of this film, there are also elements of murder, physical and sexual abuse, and a pervading creepiness that the director harnesses so well that even the most innocent and inane objects become somehow scary.
Talking of the director, Pil-Sung Yim showcases his considerable talents in Hansel and Gretel. Far from being the kind of director to just point the camera at the scene, you get the clear impression that each shot has been carefully composed, much like a piece of music. In fact it would not be an exaggeration to say that there is a visual poetry in the directing, with a great eye for angles and use of all three dimensions. Of course the director would be for nothing if the image was poor, but this film is that oh so rare combination: a horror with high production values (I discount the hundreds of Saw films, and the cinematic fecal matter that is movies like House of Wax, since no matter how high the production values a terrible film is still a terrible film). The Digital Intermediate cinematographic process really shines here, with rich saturated colours, particularly during the first part of the movie before it moves to a slightly more subdued palette as the creepy factor increases.
Of course again all of this would be let down if the acting was weak, but once again Hansel and Gretel hits the sweet spot. Each of the cast nail’s their portrayal of their character perfectly, with not a bad performance in sight. And while I’d normally give shouts to the kids for their brilliant performances, I think the real top performance comes from Hee-Soon Park who plays a Deacon in the second half of the movie. Finally I also have to mention the soundtrack, the orchestral score by Byung-Woo Lee is so good that this is one of those rare instances where I wish I could get the isolated music on disc, or better yet see it being performed by a real orchestra! Asian horror buffs may well have heard his work before too, as he also created music for The Host, Three Extremes II, and A Tale of Two Sisters.
Hansel and Gretel is now my favourite fantasy film and one that I will be recommending to all of my friends. At 116 minutes it runs longer than most films, however you never get the feeling that the film is dragging as each scene is essential to the plot and to the mood – none of the almost two hour runtime is wasted. In summary, Hansel and Gretel is a dark fantasy tale that is as unsettling as it is beautiful.