It's like screaming inside a mysterious, endless forest, with no entrance and no end, no one listening to you, if not for the echoes of your own voice. Maybe someone, someday, should write a book about the history of child acting. Or perhaps... no, it's quite likely it's already there, bringing us back inside that forest, screaming once again. It's always fascinating, for anyone who follows any film or drama industry closely, how media treats children and their growth in the limelight. How it uses their being a child for its own benefit, and then refuses to accept them when the baby fat is gone, and cuteness is yesterday's dish. In Korea up to the 80s the situation was even worse, with children not even allowed to dub their own voices, or have other (child) voice actors do the job. No, older female actors would take care of that, because all they needed was merely their being a child, their image. Some of them even made it past that guerrilla-like transition, like that young fella with the quirky smile in Kim Ki-Young's 하녀 (The Housemaid). He's now over 50, and has been acting - pretty damn well at that - his entire life. They call him Ahn Sung-Gi.
It's a sort of blessing in disguise, then, seeing big talent agencies contracting young stars at ridiculously early ages, such as in cases like Go Ara. The idea, obviously, is to help the kid navigate through his or her changes, and soften the growing pains of transitioning from child actor to their adult careers. And that's the key really, because being a child star, not just any child actor, has proven detrimental more than once, in shaping the career of those young kids. The number of stars shining for a moment and then disappearing in clouds of post-stardom depression, such as Kim Sung-Eun from 순풍 산부인과 (Soonpong Clinic), could fill a phone book. But it's not simply about individual cases, it's the whole mentality of the industry in approaching the matter. Think of Yang Dong-Geun, Lee Min-Woo, Lee Jae-Eun, Kim Min-Jung and Jung Tae-Woo, and you have a pretty long list of people who successfully crossed over, who gradually and eventually abandoned the vestiges of their child actor careers, and have left such legacy in the past, as just a side note on their biographies. Then there's cases like Moon Geun-Young and Shim Eun-Kyung, which are a little bit different, and in many ways more interesting. Especially when it comes to the latter, star of Im Pil-Sung's insanely beautiful 헨젤과 그레텔 (Hansel and Gretel).
When 가을동화 (Autumn Fairy Tale) aired and Moon Geun-Young found instant and remarkable stardom, that image of this twelve year old kid, crying before that tunnel as the drama's "early days" were coming to a close, became a sort of leit motif for the rest of her career. It's like a huge aura, not necessarily having to do with the way she acts, but more dealing with the legacy of that single role. Nobody stopped to think she did much better than her adult counterpart, Lee Mi-Yeon, in Jung Ha-Yeon's 명성황후 (The Last Empress); and of the three-plus million people who went to the theater, catapulting 어린 신부 (My Little Bride) to its impressive box office score, few of them were driven there by the "national high school girl's" thespian skills. Of course, she did act well especially in 장화, 홍련 (A Tale of Two Sisters), she still hasn't really disappointed once in that sense. But. But. Something felt strange. The little twelve year old girl was starting to grow already but not excessively so, in 댄서의 순정 (Innocent Steps), so the film did relatively well. But her steps weren't so innocent in 사랑따윈 필요없어 (Love Me Not), and here's her first flop. A surprise, it certainly wasn't.
Was it because of the film's quality, compared to her past works? Not really. Then, because of her acting? Again, not necessarily. She still has a hard time showing any maturity, but that's because she's just very young. Saying "too young to look mature" would ignore many examples of young actors already exploding with charisma or doing better than their adult peers, but everyone has his or her own tempo. The problem, after all, was that it wasn't good old Moon Geun-Young anymore, the twelve year old kid who cried before that tunnel, in Yoon Seok-Ho's monstrously successful (and equally, hilariously bad) romantic potboiler. Take that image off, and suddenly Miss Moon becomes just like everyone else. You could see her attempting a more mature look in a maligned CF, and the protests were almost appalling. Where's out little Geun-Young gone. Why did this... thing replace her? It's really quite scary psychology, if you think about it. Thankfully, Moon has smart parents who don't allow her the kind of over-exposure which ended up killing many child actors' careers, but it's hard to imagine this transition will be easy to cope with. That is, unless she takes the foot off the pedal, and starts thinking about acting as a serious profession, not just a stepping stone to stardom.
She's now shooting the rather promising sageuk 바람의 화원 (Painter in the Wind) alongside superstar Park Shin-Yang, which should make for a very healthy success. The fact the drama reworks history, drawing famous Joseon painter Shin Yoon-Bok as a woman dressing up as a man, might actually help her show some maturity, get rid of the cute image that sort of strangled her career in the last two years, particularly as her co-star could almost be her father. Then again, you never know how people will react to a "child" star growing out of her childhood legacy. It's in the opposite sense that Shim Eun-Kyung's career is interesting. Those who abandon ambitions of becoming a child star, like what Shim seems to be doing, might actually mature into great actors in their later careers. Saying Shim is unknown would be silly, as she just needs that certain something (which will probably come in a couple of years, when people stop considering her just a kid) to become the equivalent of a female Yoo Seung-Ho, and that's spelled s.t.a.r.
The issue then would be: why is Shim Eun-Kyung growing into a wonderful young actress, whereas Moon Geun-Young is in a critical stage of her career, one step away from indifference, and maybe two or three from the kind of super-stardom that lasts decades? Look at Shim's filmography and you'll find out: the young version of Myung Se-Bin's character in 결혼하고 싶은 여자 (The Marrying Type), and then the list continues with younger versions of Choi Kang-Hee, Jung Da-Bin, Ha Ji-Won in 황진이 (Hwang Jin-Yi), Lee Ji-Ah in 태왕사신기 (The Legend), and lately Kim Ji-Soo in the hit melodrama 태양의 여자 (Women in the Sun). See the pattern? She's just "young something," never takes center stage, but is allowed to grow as an actress, whereas for Moon the last five years have been an endless array of starring roles. The other pattern, of course, is that she's improved so much in the last five years, it's quite scary. What she does in Hansel and Gretel is impressive, along with her young colleagues Eun Won-Jae and Jin Ji-Hee. It's child actors all right, but for the first time in ages, it feels like the film was wrapped around them. They have a voice of their own, which is something you can rarely see in Chungmuro.
A look at children-related films in recent Chungmuro history, and you'll generally find two types: one has been dwindling down, the straightforward kids flicks. Up until the early to mid 90s, you'd find hordes of low-budget action comedies targeting children, directed by people like Nam Gi-Nam and mostly starring former TV comedians, like Shim Hyung-Rae's 우뢰매 (Uroimae) series. There was also the occasional "all kids" ensemble cast, like Lee Joon-Ik's 1993 debut 키드캅 (Kid Cop), but essentially we're dealing with a dead genre - and, looking at the average quality of those films, one can only be thankful. The others are films with a young protagonist, mostly targeted at families, in the vein of 집으로 (The Way Home). They're films for adults as well, yes, but that's not too far off the Disney canon. In this genre, no matter how imposing the child's role is, they always represent a sort of emotional vehicle, a part of the film's message. Hell, even great little black comedies like 효자동 이발사 (The President's Barber), or thrillers like 그놈 목소리 (Voice of a Murderer) and 세븐 데이즈 (Seven Days) use kids more for what they represent for other people than what they really are, that is walking, breathing, thinking individuals. Why doesn't the industry, then, make a film "for adults" about kids?
The same thing could be asked to Disney people, or even to all the fairy tale writers who dumbed down those original folk tales - warts, darkness et al - to make them more palatable to a younger audience, or offer a healthy, wholesome message at the end. The issue really is, do they turn down the heat to protect the same children they wish to portray, or is it just to make money, evidently reaching a larger viewer base with more family-oriented themes? Im Pil-Sung's sophomore effort concerns itself with similar themes, as just like Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, this is a "deDisneyfied" fairy tale for adults, those with a pretty significant Peterpan Complex, that is. If the train for outside Neverland still hasn't left station for you, then you're quite likely to go crazy over this.
Put into a much larger context involving all of Im's career ever since his preliminary shorts, this is quite an interesting choice of subject. Better, you could consider this the fairy tale version of his short from 1997, 소년기 (Brushing), which involved a fat teenager and his nightmares of youth, and the trips of imagination he went through. If you think of the father-son relationship Song Kang-Ho goes through in Im's feature debut 남극일기 (Antarctic Journal), then you could certainly consider this a recurring theme in the director's body of work. The boy in Hansel and Gretel is 13 just like Do-Hyung's son in Antarctic Journal, and this is not just a coincidence. That is, more or less, the age when you start that transition which leaves the cuteness of "children" at bay, and starts morphing into the demons and joys, the lights and shadows of "youth."
There will be people who will see Hansel and Gretel as a horror film, maybe a fantasy, but obsessing over genre tropes is not going to make them understand where this boat is heading to. This, first and foremost, is a drama about kids' demons, and their relationship with adults. Sure, it's bizarre, deliriously creative, and joyously grotesque; but at the core is a certain humanity, which eventually emerges and envelopes the story. It's like an old school fairy tale, complete with all the cruel bits. Im's starting point was yes coming from the Grimm Brothers' classic, but he added one simple detail: what if Hansel and Gretel couldn't escape from that forest, if they were trapped by their own imagination, dreams and fears? Reading this should ring a bell somewhere, shouldn't it? The intrinsic horror of locations and spaces, which brings us back to Antarctic Journal.
Through his first two feature films, Im has proven himself excellent when it comes to making mise en scene and the location of his stories feel like another character, one which pulsates with vitality and engulfs the characters throughout the film. If it was the South Pole in his past tour de force, this time we're dealing with the forest and the kids' house. This forest has ears, eyes, its embrace can both be warm and suffocating, fascinating and downright scary. To shoot this part of the film, the crew headed for Jeju Island, one of the few places in Korea where you'd find this kind of environment (save for, perhaps, Gangwon Province). In a recent interview, Cheon Jung-Myung even revealed he got lost on his first shooting day there, and wandered around the forest all night before finding his way back to the hotel, and that's the idea, really. It feels like something completely unreal, while at the same time looking like a gift from nature, endlessly complicated and beautiful.
Although CG and Kim Ji-Yong's -- 달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life), 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest) -- cinematography helped there, we have a single person to thank for that genial piece of art design which is the kids' house. The art director of choice for most of Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon-Ho's films, Ryu Seong-Hee really goes beyond every expectation here. This might just be even better than the production design of A Tale of Two Sisters, and those who have seen the film know what we're dealing with. Every small detail shines, from the cute rabbit heads on the door designs to the wallpaper, the toys and even the candies the three kids eat. It's certainly a fantasy setting, as Korean children would never dress like that, but it's just visually arresting. An endless attic, looking like the entrance of a coal mine; doors opening in the middle of a forest, interior design out of the bastard child of an Austrian Alps cottage and a Korean boy's worst nightmare. Just staring at this film for two hours, even if everything else was failing, could have been worth the price of admission alone.
But, thankfully, the rest is just as accomplished. Screenwriter Kim Min-Sook, who previously wrote the OK-ish drama 호로비츠를 위하여 (For Horowitz) with Eom Jung-Hwa, also happens to be a fairy tale writer, and although character development doesn't distance itself from genre conventions too much, what's important is that she conveys what she wants to say pretty effectively. The flashbacks aren't as well integrated to the story as one would expect, but the way director Im handles them, with incredible raw power, drives the point home. If you keep in mind this really is a human drama about kids' fear of growing up and the way adults treat them, then everything else sort of comes together by the end. The inspiration for the story came from a case of child abuse perpetrated by a fake religious group, and you can certainly find such (rather critical) nuances in here, but thankfully things never get too preachy and/or convoluted.
This is by all means Im's film, as without his vision, that mix of grotesque violence and sweet moments, of experimental theater-like atmosphere and strong drama, that finale wouldn't have been as strong. But, then again, it is the three child actors who really make an impact. Cheon Jung-Myung is his usual fine self, and the lack of charisma his character shows has more to do with him being one of those "Peterpan Complex" boys (listen to the content of his first phone call as the film stars, and the way he acts around the kids, and you'll understand), but it's really Shim Eun-Kyung, Jin Ji-Hee and Eun Won-Jae who own this piece. Shim looks like someone straight out of a Disney animation film from the Golden Age as the film starts. But then she transforms into a sort of proto-femme fatale next to Eun-Soo (Cheon), a mother or big-sister figure for the other two kids, and once again a kid way too mature for her young age towards the end. There is a reason for that, but, well... no spoilers.
There are moments watching her when you'll feel as if you were seeing someone 20 years older act. She has such impressive command of what she's doing, I'll be very surprised if she doesn't become one of the leading lights of her generation. Unless she first fulfills her dream of becoming a director, that is. Jin Ji-Hee, in some ways, is even scarier. Kids her age usually are content with looking cute and crying whenever they're told, but you can feel the emotion in whatever she's doing, the breathing character beyond those reactions. Along with Eun - older brother of Eun Seo-Woo, the little screaming prodigy from 폰 (Phone) - the two handle their roles with the kind of maturity people their ages shouldn't even understand. There's people ten, twenty years their senior who would kill to have their acting skills. If they stopped living off their star status, that is.
Hansel and Gretel is all one could expect from Im Pil-Sung and more. It's more concerned with atmosphere and emotional resonance than storytelling, which is the reason why it will divide audiences as it did in Korea, just like its predecessor Antarctic Journal. But it's one of those films that use every inch of film stock in a creative way, convey the right vibes, and set the whole thing on fire with their power. It's like a grotesque, abstract, somewhat absurd but stunningly beautiful little trip of imagination. It's like going back a few decades and turning the light off. Good night. Sweet dreams...
헨젤과 그레텔 (Hansel and Gretel)
Director: 임필성 (Im Pil-Sung)
Screenplay: 김민숙 (Kim Min-Suk)
D.P.: 김지용 (Kim Ji-Yong)
Music: 이병우 (Lee Byung-Woo)
Produced by: Barunson Film Division
Int'l Sales: Cineclick Asia
116 Minutes, 35mm 1.85:1 Color
CAST: 천정명 (Cheon Jung-Myung) as Eun-Soo, 심은경 (Shim Eun-Kyung) as Young-Hee, 은원재 (Eun Won-Jae) as Man-Bok, 진지희 (Jin Ji-Hee) as Jung-Soon, 박희순 (Park Hee-Soon) as Mr. Byeon, 김경익 (Kim Kyung-Ik) as Daddy, 장영남 (Jang Young-Nam) as Mommy, 박리디아 (Park Lidia) as Kyung-Sook, 고준희 (Go Joon-Hee) as Hye-Young/CAMEO