Once upon a time, there was a world full of abandoned and abused children. Grownups brought these lost souls to life but many weren’t able to raise them and walked away. Because of war and disease, single-parent and frequently no-parent families became far too common. It fell to institutions and individuals to fill the roles of mom and dad; the unwanted kids were a valuable commodity for religious do-gooders and steady source of unholy satisfaction for evil caregivers.
Telling the whole truth about such deplorable situations on the big screen would not sell many seats or make people think. So director Phil-sung Yim took a fantastic story by Min-sook Kim and wove it into a magical screenplay that contains many of the elements from the original Hansel and Gretel fable by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Instead of a house deep in the woods made of candies and cakes, production designer Seong-hie Ryu has filled the storybook dwelling with an incredible array of toys, baubles and beads that perfectly reinforce the “House of Happy Children” sign that greets every visitor.
Eun Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon is ideal as the catalyst between eerie make believe and scary reality) is torn between staying at home to care for his pregnant girlfriend or visit his dying, estranged mother. He gets a nasty crack on the head following a freak accident just after his mother-to-be scolds him for deserting her for the mother-soon-not-to-be. Irony starts early and is a frequent ingredient in this film’s multi-layered storytelling. Eun Soo is awakened by Young Hee (Sim Eun-kyung), a lamp-carrying angel who guides the groggy driver back to the happiest home in the world.
Soon his cuts are bandaged and he meets the rest of the picture-perfect brood: Mom and Dad ooze hospitality (only to fight loud and long when everyone else should be asleep), baby sister Jung Soon (with her infectious laugh and compelling eyes, Ji-hee Jin may soon find producers calling on her mom) and older brother Manbok (Eun Won-jae races through his devilish role with equal amounts of delight and delirium). After a good night’s sleep is curtailed by a Santa Claus alarm clock, the breakfast buffet of all-you-can-eat cupcakes seems too good to be true. And it is!
Cut off from the rest of the world (the landline is dead; cell out of range) Eun-soo is anxious to contact his loved ones but finds the forest such a maze that he can’t find his way back. After a second, this time disturbing night—a rabbit dream is both troubling and foreshadowing—he finds himself in charge of the moody kids: their parents have vanished. Manbok’s shortcut to town is a dud; the third unwanted sleepover features a creature in the attic.
As beautiful as cinematographer Ji-yong Kim’s images are, it’s the original music by Byung-woo Lee that keeps the action flowing purposely, adding subtle measures to the characterization. The harp both reinforces the childlike nature and mythical tone; solo violin and solo guitar are at one with Eun-soo’s inner sense of isolation as—with the realization that the “kids” must be older than him (only their hyperactive imaginations have kept their wee bodies and souls away from the beckoning door of purgatory), he begins to doubt his own sanity; the dissonant twinges of the youthful chorus empathize wordlessly with the desperate children, dying for attention; the inability of the final chord to resolve the musical voyage marvellously sums up much of Yim’s point of view.
Along the journey, a fire-and-brimstone preacher and his trophy wife add extra effects, plot and diversions even as the horrible truth of past deeds literally leaps off the pages of crayon-coloured diaries. The notion of wickedness in those we should be able to trust is never far from the surface, leaving a “lived happily ever after” finish for another, kinder day. JWR