Look below the surface, and fairy tales can be terrifying, grotesque and unnerving... which makes them perfect for a horror-fantasy movie.
And there's no shortage of either beauty or horror in "Hansel and Gretel" -- it's a dark fairy tale that starts off as lovely as an antique wind-up toy, but soon the prettiness flakes away to show the horrors underneath. The actors all do excellent jobs (particularly the three kids), but the real star here is Yim Pil-Sung's lushly atmospheric direction.
After a car accident, Eun-soo (Cheon Jeong Myeong) finds himself wandering through a lush green forest, until he comes across a colorful little cottage that is every child's dream -- countless toys, and no food but candy and cake. The family inside seems similarly perfect, but they're strangely reluctant to let Eun-soo go -- and soon the parents vanish, leaving Eun-soo to watch the three eerie kids.
Oh yes, and whenever poor Eun-soo tries to walk back to civilization, the the forest itself swamps him with snow and darkness.
Stuck with the kids (and a pair of increasingly creepy yuppies who are also stranded), Eun-soo begins to realize that this house isn't just creepy because of the "children's fantasy" theme. There's something dark and weepy in the attic, a girl wanders through the house and yard, and the children start to demonstrate darker facets -- and mysterious powers that are keeping him trapped.
Porcelain doll-women, people swallowed by trees, magical picture books, an endless forest littered with toys, and a house where children's wishes come true. "Hansel and Gretel" is full of strange and fantastical things that make it seem like a magical dream -- but as the story winds on, Yim Pil-Sung peels away all those pretty layers and shows us the rotten wood underneath. Think "Pan's Labyrinth" crossed with a reverse "Coraline."
And his style is absolutely stunning -- lush, eerie, full of lingering glimpses of leafy trees, antique toys and old dusty rooms hidden behind magical doors. Even the creepy scenes are painted in shadows and sunlight -- and there are a lot of them, because Yim Pil-Sung can even make harmless toys, stuffed animals and rabbit masks seem eerie.
The story needs to look that lovely, because it becomes more terrifying and saddening as it winds on -- especially since horrendous things happen to some of the grown-ups who cross these kids ("Good girl," Young-hee croons at one victim). And in the last quarter the story suddenly twists back on itself, revealing a gruesome and traumatic back history for the children, painted in the dull brown hues of an old sepia photograph.
But the most haunting aspect of the movie is the kids -- the three young actors perfectly embody innocence that has been twisted and shattered. Shim Eun Kyeong gives a heartrending performance as the tragic, withdrawn Young-hee, and while Eun Won Jae's Man-bok seems like a jerk at first, we eventually see just how passionate his protectiveness is. In fact, Cheon Jeong Myeong gets rather overshadowed despite being the lead character -- he's rather underdeveloped, but a fundamentally nice and kind guy.
"Hansel and Gretel" is a perfect blend of exquisitely beautiful horror and dark fantasy, with a brilliant cast of actors and sublime direction. An absolute must-see.