Hansel and Gretel (2007)

Review first published by EyeforFilm.

“In this world, in an unimaginably strange place, a deep forest that we could suddenly fall into exists somewhere out there,” states Lee Eun-soo (Chun Jeong-myoung) at the beginning of Hansel And Gretel, his voice intoned over images of him running through darkened trees.

In fact he has just accidentally flipped his car in the middle of nowhere, in the dead of winter, and is now dazed, delirious and lost in the woods – but given that his motor trip was taking him away from his pregnant girlfriend and towards the ailing mother for whom he still harbours unresolved feelings of hostility, it seems he was already lost before his unfortunate crash.

“Everything”, as he puts it, “started in this deep dense forest”, and his journey will take him to no ordinary space, but to the hermetic world of the fairytale, where childhood fantasies, traumas and fears present themselves in vivid form, where memories live forever, and where the darkest aspects of the psyche come out to play.

As night falls, Eun-soo is met by 12-year-old Young-hee (Eun-kyung) – the spitting image, in her scarlet cloak, of Little Red Riding Hood – and she leads him by lamplight to the “House of Happy Children”, a giant wooden cottage surrounded by foliage. There, he meets her slightly older brother Man-bok (Eun Won-jae), her seven-year-old sister Jung-soon (Jin Ji-hee), and their nervously smiling parents.

It seems a veritable dream-house for the young ones, with its bright colours, its superabundance of toys, its gift-strewn Christmas tree, and cake-and-candy dinners, but something is not quite right. “Is this place some Bermuda Triangle?”, Eun-soo wonders, as clocks and watches stop, adults disappear, and his every attempt to walk out of the woods ends in failure and a return to the house.

To reveal much more of the plot would be to give the game away, but suffice it to say that this inverted Grimms’ tale is a genre-busting mix of mystery, horror, fantasy, ghost story, social realism and pathos-filled tragedy, where the viewer can easily become as disoriented and confused as Eun-soo. It is never entirely clear whether the hero’s adventures in the forest are metaphor, dream, mental retreat, near-death experience, or simply to be taken at haunting face value – but their effect, nonetheless, is a miraculous, transformative one, in keeping with the film’s Yuletide setting.

It is tempting to describe Hansel And Gretel as Lynchian, except that the man who brought us Eraserhead, Lost Highway and INLAND EMPIRE prefers a much darker palette to the bright primary colours on offer here, courtesy of Ryu Seong-hie’s exquisite doll’s-house production design. Indeed, this is consummate filmmaking, where every frame beguiles and unnerves in equal measure, and where the sense of paranoia is conveyed less by baroque actions than by subtle glances exchanged between characters.

The refrain of the three siblings, “We’re not bad kids”, is subjected to constant reassessment with each turn of the screw, as writer/director Yim Phil-sung unfolds the legacy bequeathed by adults on their young wards. Sure, there are ogres, witches and demons about, but just where they reside, and who accommodates them, becomes an increasingly complicated question, in a world (much like our own) where everyone – even a monstrous murderer – starts off as a child.

Like any good chiller, Yim’s film thrives on the ambiguities and discrepancies that it refuses fully to resolve. Hansel And Gretel has all the irrational wish-fulfilment, not to mention the happy ending, of a children’s story, but at the same time it exposes a more adult perspective on exploited innocence, desperate dreams and broken lives, so that the viewer is caught, much like the arrested Eun-soo, in a forest of somnambulistic images and uneasy ideas – and it will take more than a trail of breadcrumbs (or a bucket of popcorn) to help you find your way back home in one piece.

Anton Bitel