Sensible kids know that some of the scariest stories come in the form of fairy tales. In the original Brothers Grimm story, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their starving parents in the woods where they encounter a cannibalistic witch who fattens them up with cakes and sweets. This South Korean adaptation recasts the children as the villains of the story, making them the cake suppliers who dispose of unwary strangers unlucky enough to chance upon their home in the forest. Cannibalism only gets a slight (visual) mention in this modern retelling, in the form of a dubious, bloody joint of meat in the over-stocked fridge, but the other memorable elements of the story – the house full of cakes, the abandoned children and the impenetrable woods you cannot escape – survive intact.
Creepy children are a safe bet for horror movies, as are crash victims who foolishly wander away from their wrecked cars instead of waiting for emergency services. These two horror staples have been over-used, and combined with such a well-known fairy tale, could have made for a film too familiar to be engaging. But Hansel and Gretel comes in a decade that has seen a renaissance in Korean fantasy cinema, and these elements have been remixed and given new vitality by a modern Asian sensibility. Appropriately, director Yim Pil-Sung starred in The Host (2006), a sort of Korean retelling of St George and the Dragon that mixed fairy tale tropes with modern concerns about pollution and eco-terrorism. Here, alongside the expected elements of witchcraft and hauntings we have child abuse and a paedophiliac priest.
At 117 minutes, the film is overlong and the script could have been sharper, but the atmosphere, the direction and most of the performances keep the audience engaged even during the longueurs. The paedophilia subtext is not entirely successful; the dodgy priest is the least convincing character in the film and sticks out like a sore thumb. However, Deacon Byun and the extended running time are the only weak aspects of Hansel and Gretel, and throughout the film there are enough remarkable images – the bucolic cottage surrounded by snow, an attic that extends further than the eye can see (reminiscent of JG Ballard’s short story ‘The Enormous Space’) and a toy angel that comes to life and flies away – to make this a memorable, unsettling film that will disturb adults who only vaguely remember the creepy fairy tales that scared them as children.