Next time your life places a difficult choice in front of you, and you’re minded to turn your back on the more difficult - but ultimately more fulfilling - path, and take the easy route out instead, then maybe set aside a couple of hours to sit down and watch South Korean director Yim Pil-Sung’s 2007 film of Hansel and Gretel first; you might find yourself reconsidering which direction you want to travel in.
This is, at first appearance, a version of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale in name only; a copy of the book is revealed to have played an important part in the main characters’ development, and beyond some superficial resemblances the film seems to diverge from the original text quite considerably. Scratch a little deeper beneath its surface, though, and Yim’s story takes rather more from the Grimms’ tale than it might seem.
Eun-soo (Chun) crashes his car on Highway 69 while phoning his on-off girlfriend (Kim Eun-joo) who is about to become the mother to his child. He wakes after dark and soon becomes lost in the woods - until eleven-year-old Young-hee (Shim) finds him and returns him to her home, the House of Happy Children. There, Eun-soo partakes of a meal of buns and cakes, having been introduced to Young-hee’s siblings - Man-Bok (Eun), a twelve-year-old boy, six-year-old sister Jung-soon (Jin) - and their parents, who disappear the following day, leaving the three children in the forced care of Eun-soo.
Following this initial set-up, a sort of reverse symmetrical take on the original story, we’re quickly plunged into the realm of the adult fairy tale, in a particularly Asian way that will be familiar from other Oriental horror films. This is very slow-burning stuff, with Eun-soo initially given to try and escape his new home, until Deacon Byun Ji-wan (Park Hee-soon) and his wife Kyeong-suk (Lydia Park) arrive with rather more ulterior motives, at which point, Eun-soo’s fear of the three children evolves into curiosity and he begins an investigation into how their circumstances came about.
Some of the directions that inquiry takes are rather well-worn, but this is a moral tale with a thoughtful, occasionally insightful edge, and it’s distinguished by Yim’s reluctance to tread the more clichéd path that a more obvious horror film might follow. Rather, this leans considerably more towards dark fantasy, with a handful of digital effects sequences and a reliance on unhurried, intricately composed tableaux. It’s a very slow film, with a third act that might have benefitted from a little pruning, but it’s worth the journey to understand the destination.
This new Blu-ray from 88 Films is loaded with worthwhile extras, but the clarity of the print - despite the breathtaking beauty of the imagery - betrays some low-light filming issues that might prove a little distracting.
Extras: trailers, commentary, introduction, three production interviews
HANSEL AND GRETEL (2007) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: YIM PIL-SUNG / SCREENPLAY: KIM MIN-SOOK, YIM PIL-SUNG / STARRING: CHUN YUNG-MYUNG, EUN WON-JAE, SHIM EUN-KYUNG, JIN JI-HEE / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW