Hansel and Gretel (Henjel Gwa Geuretel in its original language), is a visually scrumptious retelling of the original tale from the Brothers Grimm. In spectacular fashion it brings to life all of the horror of the original tale in a refreshing new way to awaken a sense of dread and fear in the audience that is inherent to all horror films, but through a dark fantasy tale that is similar to films such as Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Devil’s Backbone (2001). It is very Del Toroesque in its tone, but certainly more horrifying as it builds suspense throughout its narrative so that its audience is constantly left guessing to which genre the film even falls into as it jumps between horror, fantasy, fairytale, and thriller.
The original tale of Hansel and Gretel is one of the most popular but darkest fairy tales. It tells the story of two siblings who are abandoned by their parents in the woods as they are too poor to look after them. The children, who knew of the plan, had cleverly dropped breadcrumbs along their trail into the forest so that they may find their way home. Once they had safely returned home and again been taken into the forest, this time much farther in, the two children stumble across a candy-covered house. Naturally the children are hungry, and they begin eating parts of the house. A wicked witch that lives in the house however comes out and invites the children in. The children, naïve of the danger they are in, enter the house, and the boy, Hansel, is trapped in a cage. The witch wishes to fatten him up with the candy he so desires so that she may eat him. When Gretel has put on a handsome amount of weight, the witch opens the cage and tells him to get into the oven. However, being the clever boy that he is, Hansel pretends he does not know how to get inside the over. The witch, in order to show him, leans in, and quick as a flash, the two children push her into the oven and she is burnt alive. The children then take all of the rubies and riches the witch has home so that their family might never be poor again. When watching this adaptation, most audiences would expect a very similar story within the films, as most previous adaptations have been. However, despite a lot of strong references to the tale that I will not name within the review because of spoilers, that is not strictly speaking the case.
The film begins with a man called Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) who is involved in an accident after his car tumbles over a cliff, but leaving him only mildly wounded. Fortunately he is quickly rescued by a young girl, reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood with her red cape and fairy-like face, surely director Pil-Sung Yim’s way of establishing the fairytale setting of the new world Eun-Soo is about to enter. The young girl, Jung Soon (Ji-hee Jin), lantern in hand, acts as Eun-Soo’s guardian angel and leads him to the safety of her house.
Within symbolic interpretation, the home is typically indicative of security, safety, family and protection, and the house Jung Soon leads him to has a welcome sign declaring ‘House of Happy Children’, surely a sign that this is a wonderful and peaceful place to enter. It seems promising that Eun-Soo will be led to achieve safe recovery. However, the heavenly spotlight enshrining the house, as we learn throughout the film, masks the horrors that lie within. Afterall, is the house in the original fairytale not also an oasis of candy and sweets – everything that children desire – in the midst of the haunted woods, but its purpose is to hide the children’s’ destruction in the form of a wicked witch that wishes to gobble them up?
For anyone who has not read up on the film beforehand, it is likely that you will still be guessing by this point how this film relates to the original tale, and just what genre the film is. Adaptations of fairy tales, in particular Hansel and Gretel, made in the Western World, tend to typically be happy, colourful films made for children to enjoy. At this point it does appear that this Korean adaptation of Hansel and Gretel is similar. As the house interior is finally revealed to us, we meet a seemingly happy, loving family that have decorated the house in multi-coloured pastel shades and garnished it with a few Christmas trinkets. We do not know the time in which the film is set, but the references to Christmas that appear in the first instance do suggest that the film is set within the festive season, especially as elements of Christmas, including the appearance of Santa Clause, become more dominant in the film. The setting of the house is further lavished with candies and cakes that are coloured in every shade of the rainbow. A glorious haven for any sweet-toothed child, it isn’t surprising that the adults we assume are the parents do not indulge in the eating of those treats. Instead, like the wicked witch of the original tale, they encourage the children and Eun-Soo to give them a taste. Perhaps, like the moral of the Grimms’ tale which teaches us that children who fail to resist temptation and give into desire are sure to end up in sticky situations, the eating of those sweets within the film could be an indication of the misfortune that is to fall upon the characters within the film. In that way, our horror story really begins.
Fairytales are typically brutal and horrific. They tell the tale of children who happen across all sorts of bad witches, wolves and goblins, and have to use their wit and pure, good nature to overcome the evils that they face. However, unlike many adaptations of fairy tales that strip it of all its horror, the original tales do not sugarcoat the brutality of their tales, but rather linger on it in order to morally educate children into a life of socially accepted goodness. Perhaps this is why this Korean adaptation of Hansel and Gretel works so well as a fairytale; it certainly isn’t a fairytale for children, rather, one for grown ups along the lines of an Angela Carter fairytale.
So what makes this film a horror film, and not just a dark fantasy tale?
A good horror film is made up of an element of suspense that keeps the audience guessing. That is what frightens us – when we are either visually startled by something, or we aren’t quite sure what it is that is making us nervous, but we are in the process of finding out. What makes Hansel and Gretel so terrifying is perhaps its incorporation of Freudian horror, in particular his theory of the Uncanny. Essentially the uncanny is the idea that taboo subjects of society such as cannibalism, sexuality of women and children, the reanimation of the dead, and doppelgangers to name a few, that we repress during childhood as being something that causes unease. This then, according to Freud, returns during adulthood in the form of a monster, but rather than as something obviously horrific (that is clearly visually terrifying), we are not quite sure what it is about this ‘monster’ that frightens us. So for instance, the first three of the ‘uncanny’ subjects I previously mentioned can be found in Hansel and Gretel. The cannibalism aspect of this is the most frightening as Eun-Soo sees the meat in the fridge that he, along with the children, has been eating, and realises that it is in fact human flesh. It is this moment that Eun-Soo realises that something isn’t quite right.
The element of identification in the film between the film and the spectator allows the spectator to experience the story through Eun-Soo’s perspective, and they therefore experience his journey with him. This is what is so brilliant about the film – we as the audience have no idea about who the monster of the film is. Is it the children who we are led to believe are murderous cannibals, made more convincing when Eun-Soo discovers Man-bok’s copy of Hansel and Gretel with the three children’s faces stuck over the three characters at the end that have just burnt the witch. However, could it be the different adults that look after them and contaminate their innocence that are to blame? The children are desperate not to grow up and they claim that all grown-ups are bad. Eun-Soo desperately tries several times to get them out of the house, whether to guide him through the never-ending woods, or to escape with him into the real world where he believes they will be happy. The house then, acts as Neverland in retaining the childrens’ youth. The house is timeless and the children haven’t aged there (as we discover when Eun-soo finds their birth certificates). They are the lost children of Neverland, desperately seeking a good grown-up that loves them and wants to take care of them forever (as they are never convinces the other adults of the household are truly good-hearted). It is not until the climax of the film that all is revealed and we discover exactly what has happened within the haunted house the characters reside in. It is important to note that it is primarily down to the flawlessly convincing acting from the different actors in the film, particularly the three children, one of which is very young, that we can immerse ourselves in this gloriously dark fairytale world, making this a truly submersive and wonderful horror film to experience.
Korean filmmakers are renowned for their ability to produce deeply intelligent and horrifying films, and they similarly apply their skills to this to produce something astoundingly terrifying that will haunt audiences long after the final scene. Hansel and Gretel is loosely based on the Grimm’s tale, but upon watching the film you will see that there live many references to other fairytales (just as Pan’s Labyrinth did). It is a monumental change in direction for the Korean film industry, and I believe it lives on as one of the most haunting horror fantasies of all time.
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