Although the samples are too few to be called a tendency ("Hansel and Gretel" and "Red Shoes" come to mind), South Koreans seem to have found a new source of material for their films, this time from classical European fairy tales. In this case, the source material is "The Piper from Hamelin", a medieval story popularized by the Brothers Grimm.
A boy named Yeong-nam and his father, Woo-ryong are trying to get to Seoul after the Korean war, in order to find a doctor for the kid, who suffers from tuberculosis. During their travel, they stumble upon a path that eventually leads them to a secluded village. The village looks idyllic and the leader treats the two of them nicely, as he explains that everything goes well for its inhabitants, except an issue they have with rats, that have infested the area. Woo-ryong, who proves an excellent pipe player, agrees to help them with the problem for the price of a pig. At the same time, he starts having feelings for the village's shaman, Mi-shook. However, soon the village is revealed to harbor a number of secrets, as the film takes a turn towards the utterly dark.
Using European fairy tales may not be a tendency yet, however allegory seems to have become one in S. Korean cinema. In that fashion, Kim Kwang-tae, in his debut, directs and pens a film filled with symbolism. The chief's manipulation of the locals through deception and manipulation symbolizes the tactics usually associated with fundamendalist regimes. The way the inhabitants treat the two guests and each other corresponds to the flaws of the Korean people, namely xenophobia, naivety regarding the leadership's will, subjucation of women, and lack of trust among them. The rat infestation symbolizes the troubles, bad leadership brings to the people, while the shocking ending, its consequences on the new generation.
Apart from the distinct sociopolitical messages, the film also works quite nicely as a thriller, as the secrets start revealing, along with the true nature of the villagers. Particularly the last part moves exclusively towards the genre, while the ever-present melodrama shows its face once more, among the bloodbath that ensues. Lastly, the S. Korean favourite theme of revenge is also present.
The movie revolves around Woo-ryong's character to a large degree, and Ryu Seung-ryong gives an extraordinary performance, as the capable but naive piper, who eventually turns into an angel of death. Lee Sung-min is also great as Village chief, as he manages to exemplify the fact that he acts nicely, but hides evil behind his seemingly friendly facade. Chun Woo-hee as Mi-sook has a small and undemanding role, but makes the most of it. Finally, little Goo Seung-hyun as Yeong-nam is quite competent as a vulnerable kid who loves his father very much.
Technically, the film is competent, to say the least, with Hong Jae-sik's cinematography making the most out of the bucolic scenery of the village. The flute music that mostly comprises the movie's soundtrack is very fitting, while the special effects are impressive, particualry during the end, and in the scenes where the rats attack.
"The Piper" is an entertaining and meaningful movie that will satisfy most of its spectators, despite its somewhat grotesque nature.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Available on DVD and streaming from Amazon
DVD US (En Sub)
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[Guest Film Review] "The Piper""
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