June 23, 2009

Hansel and Gretel

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ***½

A young man, Eun-Soo, drives on a lonely forest highway while having an argument via cell phone with his girlfriend. This leads to what could serve as the greatest PSA warning about the dangers of talking on a cell phone while driving: his loses control of the car just long enough to swerve and flip over a ditch. In his dazed, bloodied state he wanders into a forest before passing out with a concussion. When Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) wakes, he's pleased to see a young girl -- wearing a little red riding hood, natch -- has found him. She offers to lead the dazed man back to her home, which welcomes him with a sign reading "Home for Happy Children" -- a good indicator that things are just not going to go well here. It's a house not made of gingerbread but seemingly too good to be true... And that's just the first few minutes of Hansel and Gretel, director Yim Phil-sung's (Antarctic Journal) memorably dark fable inspired by, but also transposing, the titular Grimm fairy tale.

The son, Soojeong, seems to have special abilities that may begin to remind you of that famous Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" (remade in the TZ movie), a boy burdened with a gift who wants to get everything he wishes. But the family history as it's slowly revealed will give you a great deal of sympathy for the life he's been cursed with. This "family" of three children of various ages (and you don't know the half of it) turns out to have a few surprising secrets underneath that initial layer of rosy-cheeked friendliness. Eun-soo does everything he can to try to leave the house, to return to his pregnant wife and ailing mother, but all paths away from the house seem to lead right back to it; it's a Bermuda Triangle in the heart of the forest.

The story gets a bit convoluted as it rolls on, rushing through a few too many plot points and explanations, but slowly builds the layers of dread. Eun-soo becomes more protective of the children while also battling against a deacon who'd ended up at the house and seems to cloak his own dark side under a veneer of insincere friendliness.

What the film also has going for it is the look, the lushly colored cinematography and art design are perfectly in tune with the story of a distorted childhood, of being stuck in time and place. The pastiche of creepy kitsch and domestic detritus -- odd bunny paintings (it's the best creepy rabbit movie since Donnie Darko), time warped cartoons, fluffy desserts, children's toys everywhere -- and the variations of forest light and darkness, all of this adds to the feeling of dread that hangs over the film.

It's as if Kore-ada's Nobody Knows took a detour through purgatory before returning to humanity.

It's not fun for the whole family, but it's a pretty memorable work.

The DVD from Evokative Films is nicely packaged with a host of extras unusual for an overseas release. Most interesting of all, perhaps, are two shorts from filmmaker Yim Phil-sung: Brushing and Baby, and a couple of engaging behind the scenes featurettes.

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Posted by cphillips at June 23, 2009 1:31 PM
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