Who isn't familiar with the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, where the two children are lured into a cannibal witch's gingerbread house? In 2007, Korean film director, Yim Pil-Sung, released his modern and twisted take on the classic tale that contains neither the title characters nor a cannibal witch. Instead, Yim Pil-Sung cherry picked several elements from the traditional story and created an original, and sinister, modern fantasy.
Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) is, at first glance, a disinterested business-man just trying to get through life. He's driving in his car down a wet, country road while on a cell phone talking to his pregnant girlfriend. She is supposed to go to the hospital and wants Eun-soo to be there with her. Eun-Soo, however, has other matters that he needs to attend to rather than going with her. His girlfriend claims he's irresponsible and hangs up. Suddenly, Eun-soo's car skids off the road into the forest where he is knocked out cold. He wakes up in a dark forest and sees a young girl dressed with a red cape, who looks strikingly similar to Little Red Riding Hood and who is searching the for her younger sister's lost hairpin.
The little girl, Young-hee (Shim Eun-kyung), leads him back to her house in the woods. Her house has a sign outside that says, "House of Happy Children," which can't possibly be good harbinger of things to come. Inside, the house is like Christmas. It's bright, colorful and filled with toys. Eun-soo meets Young-hee's parents, her younger sister, Jung-soon (Ji-hee Jin), and her older brother, Man-bok (Eun Won-jae). Something is amiss in this House of Happy Children, however. The children do not seem quite so happy and the nervous parents' actions are cautious and measured. Their words are chosen with great care whenever they speak. Eun-soo lost his cell phone in the car crash and wants to phone home to let his girlfriend know he's ok. The parents explain to Eun-soo that he can't make the call because their phone was supposedly disconnected a few days ago. They then invite him to stay overnight.
The next morning Eun-soo leaves the bizarre family as quickly as possible. He walks the path he believes he took to the house, but cannot find his way out of the forest. The day quickly turns to night and Eun-soo has no choice except to go back to the House of Happy Children. After Eun-soo returns to the house, Man-bok offers to help him when it's daytime again. The next morning, all the three kids are crying. They claim that their parents had urgent business to attend to and left for a few days. The kids ask Eun-soo to watch them while their parents are away.
What ensues is a dark fairy tale about a House of Happy Children that nobody can ever escape. The kids seem to somehow be in charge of the strange house. There are a lot of things that make no sense to Eun-soo, such as how they always watch an violent black-and-white cartoon about a bunny rabbit ripping apart a bear. The cartoon is on every channel and the television is not plugged in. There is an attic that doubles as an endless maze. And there is something peculiar about the food they eat. What kind of demon house is this?
Hansel and Gretel is probably best labeled a horror film although it is not scary. The movie keeps you on edge as Eun-soo seeks an escape from the House of Happy Children while, at the same time, walking on egg shells to not anger the three kids who live there. However, you probably won't experience any goose bumps while watching it. There are some creepy images and several violent scenes in this dark fantasy film. Hansel and Gretel lies somewhere in between Alice in Wonderland and Nightmare on Elm Street.
Hansel and Gretel contains a few fairy tale references that make an obvious wink to the audience such as Little Red Riding Hood, Santa Claus, and a passing mention about a pumpkin wagon. However, it's not a flighty hodgepodge of fairy tale tropes like the Shrek movies. The story is not unpredictable, but executed well. The pacing of the film is slow and tone is quiet, but never dull. This is the type of movie that Sixth Sense director, M. Night Shyamalan, was once capable of producing early in his career.
The acting in Hansel and Gretel is exceptional, and the three children actors highlight the movie. They portray themselves as attempting to be innocent, but also seeming sinister and hiding something. There's a foreboding strangeness about them--a vibe that Eun-soo picks up on immediately and instinctively seeks to escape. Eun Won-Jae, who plays the oldest child, Man-bok, plays his role exceptionally well. From Man-bok's first appearance on screen, there is no doubt that while he is a kid, he is very wise for his age and also extremely volatile. The kids' performances could easily have been played either too innocent or too creepy. Either case would have been a disservice to the story, which requires these three kids to carefully balance these two characteristics.
The House of Happy Children is itself a character in the film. At first glance, the house is a kid's paradise. It's quirky, colorful, and filled to the brim with vintage toys, candies, sweets, and art featuring rabbits, bears and robots. However, this playhouse is a mere a fašade to hide the horrors that await those who are ensnared in the trap. There is so much going on the background, you are tempted to pay more attention the details in the wallpaper than to the movie itself. I would love to see a high-definition version of this film to pick out more details.
Hansel and Gretel only bears a passing resemblance to its namesake. There's a mysterious house in the woods, the cannibal oven, and the trail of breadcrumbs. Without spoiling too much of the movie, not much else from the classic tale is included. The characters, Hansel and Gretel, never make an appearance. Sadly, the wicked, human-flesh roasting, old hag never shows up either.
Do not let the title fool you into thinking this is kid's film or even a modern reimagining of a fairy tale such as the 1996 movie, Freeway, which was an obvious spin on Little Red Riding Hood. Hansel and Gretel borrows a few ideas from the original story, twists them around, and then swerves off into a delightfully eerie tale of suspicion. It's obvious early on where the plot is going, but it is still a ride well worth taking--if only to see if everyone lives happily ever after. Recommended.