by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 52ND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The “J-Horror” trend that began eleven years ago with Hideo Nakata’s "Ringu" has all but run its course, but don’t tell that to Yim Pil-Sung ("Antarctic Journal"), the co-writer and director of "Hansel & Gretel," a South Korean film loosely based on the familiar Grimm fairy tale. Less horror than dark fantasy, Pil-Sung’s film flips the Grimm fairy tale on its head, but to often frustrating results. At almost two hours, "Hansel & Gretel" is overlong and self-indulgent. Pil-Sung stretches a thin premise, partly borrowed on an episode of "The Twilight Zone," “It’s a Good Life,” well beyond even the most patient moviegoer’s breaking point, neutering otherwise superlative art and production design and cinematography and surprisingly nuanced performances from his three young co-leads.On his way to a business meeting, a distracted Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) veers off a winding, deserted road and crashes his car after he spots something that may or may be alive. A bloodied Eun-Soo awakens and still stunned, wanders into the forest. Lost, he encounters a lantern-carrying young woman, Young-Hee (Sim Eun-kyung), wearing a white dress (a bad sign, since white represents death in Eastern cultures) and a red cloak (an obvious Little Red Riding Hood, but who’s the potential victim and who’s the wolf). Eun-Soo follows Young-Hee to the “Home for Happy Children,” where he meets Young-Hee’s brother, Manbok (Eun Won-jae), and younger sister, Jung-Soon (Ji-hee Jin), and their nervous parents. Inside, Eun-Soo finds a house crammed with toys and Christmas tree, but no working phone. With little choice, Eun-Soo decides to spend the night.
"An overlong South Korean "Twilight Zone" episode."
The next morning, Eun-Soo awakens to the still jittery parents and a plateful of pastries for breakfast. When Eun-Soo tries to leave, he gets lost and finds himself back at the Happy Home for Children. Suddenly dark, he decides to stay another night, but overhears the parents having a violent argument. The next day, the children inform Eun-Soo that the parents have left unexpectedly and ask him to remain. He refuses, but when he tries to leave, he finds himself back at the house. Eun-Soo slowly (very slowly) begins to suspect something’s amiss. Manbok takes issue with Eun-Soo wandering around the house or touching their things, including a “Hansel & Gretel” picture book. Before Eun-Soo can find any answers about the children and their mysterious powers (or the house’s), another stranded couple appears at the house. The man, Deacon Byun (Hee-soon Park), quietly claims God has sent him.
Hansel & Gretel certainly has a promising premise, even if some of the elements (e.g., creepy, sinister children with dark secrets, dark-haired wraiths) are familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with “J-Horror” (or “K-Horror” to be more accurate) films, but Pil-Sung squanders that premise through an overlong, flashback-heavy running time, tension-free and suspense-free scene building, and undermotivated characters. Hansel & Gretel stagnates in repetitive scenes of Eun-Soo wandering around the forest, only gradually realizing he can’t escape the “Home for Happy Children” and the children’s desire to make him their next caretaker. When Pil-Sung runs out of variations of the same scene, he introduces the new couple that function to make the children victims and Eun-Soo the hero.Somewhere in "Hansel & Gretel" is a banal, obvious message about parental responsibility and a more interesting, potentially subversive message about the inherent dangers of permanent adolescence. Whatever the message Pil-Sung wanted to impart on his audience, he failed to credit them with the critical abilities necessary to decipher "Hansel & Gretel’s" major plot points and plot twists. If he had, he would have trimmed "Hansel & Gretel" by 20-30 minutes and found an alternative to the clichéd villain he introduces in the second half. Pil-Sung also would have realized that imaginative art and production design and a handful of dreamlike or dream-inspired images wouldn’t be enough to sustain "Hansel & Gretel’s" running time. That, alas, would have been asking too much of Pil-Sung or his collaborators.
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originally posted: 05/10/09 12:00:00