FILM HANSEL AND GRETEL DIRECTOR YIM PIL SUNG

What Lies Beneath the Surface ...?

The latest South Korean horror movie to premiere in the UK is Yim Pil-sung’s Hansel and Gretel, a 19th century fairytale which we’re all likely to have grown up with and heard about by way of the Brothers Grimm. I saw the film on the Southbank with a packed daytime crowd at the B.F.I. and to my ears it played unevenly. The plot concerns father-to-be Eun-soo, who jack-knifes his car one morning on a remote stretch of country road and awakens later, mobile-less, in the thick of dense woodland. Yeong-hee emerges in the dead of night, an unsettlingly flirtatious presence—with ruby lips and round expectant eyes—and shepherds him back to her family cottage, the magical “Home of Happy Children”. She introduces her saccharine yet clearly anxious parents, in addition to her siblings: Man-bok her 13-year old brother, who is short-tempered and impulsive, and younger sister Jung-soon, who is the veritable household pet: adorable, needy and coddled by everyone. No surprise then that the cute darlings are holding their parents (who are in fact strangers) against their will and have instructed them to pose as a family unit. It transpires that Eun-soo has entered a world in which the fantasy of a parental authority is paramount to the childrens’ way of life.

The story—which concerns the retreat of three once good but now very screwed up children into an immersive fantasy world that exists only in their damaged hearts—is potentially a profound and touching one


Home of Happy Children: siblings Man-bok (Eun Won-jae), Jung-soon (Jin Ji-hee) and Yeong-hee (Shim Eun-kyung) in Hansel and Gretel (2007)

In its defence Hansel and Gretel overcomes the resistible call of its let love conquer all message once the three surviving children learn to turn their backs on Eun-soo and retreat into their world of self-imposed isolation. The film deals with issues ranging from a critique of the capitalist system of production and competition (kidnapping and cannibalism) to critical depictions of so-called “civilised” family relations and conservative disciplinarianism (parental violence and actual sexual abuse). Yet it is less a morality tale than an explicit drama about child abuse, rape revenge, corruption and willful self-delusion. At its heart, the film has something to say about parental authority: as the only adult, for instance, Eun-soo is literally besieged by the primitive and sadistic impulses of a dysfunctional family which must perpetually overcompensate for an absence of adult authority figures. And the girl Yeong-hee, who has such trouble articulating herself in a manner that isn’t apparently solicitous, can only relate to others using language which she was forced to learn from her abuser. Indeed the story—which concerns the retreat of three once good but now very screwed up children into an immersive fantasy world that exists only in their damaged hearts—is potentially a profound and touching one. But, here, I felt that lyrical note was forgotten.

The film’s full colour pastel style and asexual cartoon quality is hardly imaginative. It should, one senses, be a repository for imaginary critters and other fairytale tropes—this is, after all, not the adult Eun-soo’s film but rather the childrens’, for they conjure the world we see
If the story is melodramatic, the fantasy is just bland. Mexican director Guillermo del Toro changed the horror-fairytale landscape for good with Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006, Spain/Mexico/USA), a film which won Academy Awards for best achievement in art direction, cinematography, and make-up. The fantasy sequences of del Toro’s film—in which we see astonishing mutant monsters so elegant and sensual in design that they are at once mystifyingly beautiful, horrific and vile—are so memorable, the pre-materialist fairytale-based “reality” so delightful on the eye, that the film has set a standard for excellence in production and concept design that few filmmakers have shown they can rival. The films of Tim Burton, for instance, have suffered from neglect for years: though his Beetlejuice (1988, USA), Sleepy Hollow (1999, USA/Germany), (to a degree) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005, USA/UK) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, USA/UK) are loving self-reflexive tributes to the woeful low-budget set-based Hammer films of the sixties and seventies, too often are they hailed by those in the industry and by Burton connoisseurs as markers of visual excellence in the Hollywood system, where it is closer to the truth that his chromatic style has long been redundant and more than a little self-serving. For its part, Yim’s Hansel and Gretel is engaging for a while but, like Burton’s computer-generated production Alice in Wonderland (2010, USA), its full colour pastel style and asexual cartoon quality is hardly compelling or imaginative. The film could be a repository for imaginary critters, subterranean arching passageways and other fairytale tropes—this is, after all, not the adult Eun-soo’s film but rather the childrens’, for they (like OfĂ©lia in del Toro’s film) conjure the world we see and they have the capacity alone to expand upon its universe—but disappointingly the film draws its predominantly bunny-based imagery, of which Yim is peculiarly fond, from classic Western sources, chiefly Kubrick’s The Shining and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.
8 December, 2008

0 comments:

Post a Comment