Hardly innovative, but effective and handsomely produced, “Hansel & Gretel” puts the “grim” in Grimm while placing South Korean director Yim Phil-sung on the shortlist of “Pan’s Labyrinth” emulators to trust. Pic’s mix of horror, humor and surreality doesn’t bother being faithful to the titular fairy tale, though its nerve-jangling narrative of three kids left in a weird old house without proper guidance has dark magic to spare. Flesh-ripping telekinesis, a blue-eyed Santa, an evil deacon, a freaky forest of moving trees and a Danny Elfman-esque string-and-choir score are just a few elements that make Yim’s film translatable worldwide.
With an ornate production impeccably designed by Ryu Seong-hee of “Oldboy” and “The Host,” Yim asserts his kinetic action credentials in the first reel, as expectant father Eun-soo (Chun Jeong-myoung), yakking on a cell phone, loses control of his car on a winding road. Wandering the woods at night, Eun-soo happens upon Young-hee (Shim Eun-kyoung), a red-caped preteen girl holding a lantern and beckoning him to the House of Happy Children, where there’s no landline and no cell service, but plenty of toys, sweets and framed paintings of rabbits on the walls.
Thrown into this ’60s pop-art dreamscape, our hero meets the girl’s siblings — sweet kindergartener Jung-soon (Jin Ji-hee) and irritable adolescent Man-bok (Eun Won-jae), along with their stoned-looking parents — and wonders if he has stumbled into the Bermuda Triangle. The five family members often appear together, neatly arranged in Yim’s frame and looking straight into his camera as if they’re posing for a holiday photo. But Mom and Dad suddenly take a hike, leaving only a terse note and leaving Eun-soo, whom the kids have started calling “Uncle,” unhappily in charge.
As pic’s bizarre elements turn increasingly menacing (and titles such as “Day Five” mark time a la “The Shining”), Yim relies a bit too heavily on loud Dolby blasts — thumps coming from the attic — to rattle the viewer’s cage. But “Hansel & Gretel” has plenty of other tricks up its sleeve, including a violently bad man of the cloth (marvelously played by Park Hee-soon) whose red-tinted eyeglasses, fur-collared coat and crazed smile give him the look of a hipper Jim Jones.
Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the film isn’t timid about putting a child in sadistically violent danger, and some of the action involving Park’s practically vampiric deacon is quite nasty. But Yim and co-screenwriter Kim Min-suk can be commended for portraying the horror of child abuse in a manner that rarely rings false or exploitative.
The cameo appearance of a yellowing copy of “Hansel & Gretel” is the pic’s most direct reference to the Grimm tale, although the theme of abandoned and otherwise mistreated children — as well as a magic house with treats inside — remains pervasive throughout.
Production design is the film’s strongest technical achievement (notable enough in the CGI era of fantasy cinema), although d.p. Kim Jee-yong works wonders in low light, and the layered sound mix periodically includes a chorus of child singing so angelic that it’s almost demonic.