Carnivorous rats are mickey mouse compared with the heinous humans in “The Piper,” South Korean helmer-scribe Kim Gwang-tae’s chilling transposition of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” to a Korean hamlet in the early ’50s. As a bleak fable on human nature (“Crimes committed for survival should be forgiven,” notes one character), it’s pretty old hat, but as an allegory on Korean history and politics, the movie proves cynically observant, with starkly economical storytelling and sharp visual effects to boot. Despite the fantasy-horror trappings, gorehounds expecting a typically grisly K-thriller payoff may be disappointed by the film’s tone of controlled anger. Though it’s not exactly hit material, a few genre festivals should dance to its tune.
Set alongside other Korean horror adaptations of Western fairy tales, such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Red Shoes,” “The Piper” proves less surreal in plot or aesthetics. Instead, it conveys eeriness through the village’s otherworldly ambiance and builds up to a murderous frenzy by insinuation. The rats are not presented as the sort of mutant animals that would appear in a monster movie; instead, the focus is squarely on the human characters and their inhumanity.
Kim Woo-ryong (Ryu Seung-ryong, “The Target”), a flute player with a crippled leg, lost his wife during the Korean War, which left most people destitute. To find a cure for his son Young-nam (Gu Seung-hyun), who is suffering from tuberculosis, he takes the boy on a journey on foot to Seoul, where he believes a “Dr. McArthur” can work wonders with American medicine. While wending through a forest, they’re led by the smell of cooking to a sequestered village. The villagers’ ancient clothing makes them look as if they’ve been cut off from the outside world for centuries, giving viewers the feeling of stepping into a time warp.
Braving the villagers’ curious yet unwelcoming gaze, Woo-ryong beg them for food and shelter for the night. When Nam-soo (Lee Joon), son of the village chief (Lee Sung-min, “Kundo: Age of the Rampant”) airs his misgivings about the intruders, his father’s reason for taking them in smacks more of pragmatism than genuine hospitality: “People forget kindness easily but they remember cruelty.” That’s a maxim that rings louder than the piper’s tune throughout the yarn, even as it goes ominously unheeded.
Woo-ryong notices that the village is infested with unusually predatory rats, which appear to have acquired a taste for human flesh since an incident that continues to haunts the locals, though they keep mum about it. The rats’ gruesome activities are mostly inferred, cultivating a sense of supernatural dread. Woo-ryong offers to rid them of the plague with his music in exchange for Young-nam’s medical fees, and the ensuing action setpiece is thrillingly paced, with vivid scenes of rodents on the stampede.
The Korean title, “Son-nim,” means “visitor” or “stranger,” but also euphemistically refers to ghosts, whom Koreans believe like to drop by at specific times and occasions; to a certain extent, it’s a dystopian variation on the onetime Korean hit “Welcome to Dongmakgol.” As in that film, the isolated villagers are kept in the dark about the state of the war, but here, it’s the chief’s ploy to control them, just as Big Brother does in George Orwell’s “1984,” a novel in which rats also play a horrifying part.
The chief’s manipulation of the villagers’ cowardice and selfishness reaches nasty new heights with a witch hunt that closely resembles a “self-criticism” session during the Cultural Revolution. The allegory can be applied to communist regimes and right-wing dictatorships alike, whereas the rat infestation symbolizes any of Korea’s political, social and cultural maladies — cronyism, xenophobia, subjugation of women and a fundamental lack of trust and honesty between individuals. The ending reiterates this moral of honoring promises with a skin-crawling scene of children, who represent the future generation, blindly following the leadership of an untrustworthy adult.
Ryoo trades his usual tough-as-nails image for that of a loser driven by desperation to take risks even if he gut instincts tell him not to; scenes of him groveling to save himself and Young-nam are disturbingly pitiful. As the chief, Lee possesses an evil glint that’s a bit of a giveaway that his wise and congenial manner may be a ruse; although his scenes with Ryu are highly charged, the actor’s rendering of duplicity and villainy is not exactly subtle. After his moving performance as a victim of male abuse in “Han Gong-ju,” Chun Woo-hee is again a bundles of nerves as a reluctant shaman, but doesn’t have more dimensions beyond that.
While visual and special effects are top drawer, sets and overall production quality veer toward the look of an independent film. Lenser Hong Jae-sik’s carefully composed aerial shots over rural Gwangwon province evoke an omniscient presence peering down at the human debacle. The flute music is an intriguing blend of medieval and Korean folk rhythms.