손님 (The Piper)

A Ube Film Production
Distribution: CJ E&M
Rating: 15 and Over
Genre: Horror Fantasy
Running Time: 107 Min
Shooting Time: 2014/May/22~2014/Sep/04 (50 Dates)
Release: 2015/Jul/09

WITH 류승룡 (Ryu Seung-Ryong) as Woo-Ryong; 이성민 (Lee Seong-Min) as Village Headman; 천우희 (Cheon Woo-Hee) as Mi-Sook; 이준 (Lee Joon) as Nam-Soo; 구승현 (Gu Seung-Hyeon) as Young-Nam; 정경호 (Jung Kyung-Ho) as Cheol-Soo's Father; 이민지 (Lee Min-Ji) as Min-Young; 김영선 (Kim Young-Seon) as Mudang;

CREW Director 김광태 (Kim Gwang-Tae) Executive Producer 김동우 (Kim Dong-Woo) 이한 (Lee Han) Planning 이한 (Lee Han) | Screenplay 김동우 (Kim Dong-Woo) | Director of Photography 홍재식 (Hong Jae-Shik) Lighting 김재근 (Kim Jae-Geun) Editor 김창주 (Kim Chang-Joo) Music 이지수 (Lee Ji-Soo) Art Direction 김수경 (Kim Soo-Gyeong) Action Choreography 윤대원 (Yoon Dae-Won)

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 6,385,770,880 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 828,002
BUDGET: 4,000,000,000 Won

Photo © Ubu Film, CJ E&M

SYNOPSIS

Shortly after the Korean War, a man and his son, Woo-ryong and Young-nam, arrive in an isolated mountain village looking for work in order to make enough money to continue their journey to Seoul. Against the chief’s better judgment, Woo-ryong is allowed to do odd jobs and soon realizes the village suffers a major rat infestation. Like a mid-century Pied Piper, he makes a deal with the chief to rid the town of the rats but when the time comes to collect his fee and leave, the chief double crosses the father and son. Vowing revenge, he lures the rats back, fulfilling an old prophesy that brings horror to the village. [KoBiz]

REVIEW

The horror genre has long been commodified in Korea as the realm of project films – flimsy, generally low budget flicks populated by idols and/or B-list stars looking for a quick paycheck, often trying to bank their fortunes on one potentially buzz-worthy but perennially shallow gimmick. This has not only watered down the genre's average output, but also discouraged many a potential young director from trying their hand at something a little closer to the horror genre tropes they'd grown up with. It's hard to concoct something as deliriously creative as Im Pil-Sung's Korean answer to the prototypical Grimm tale, 헨젤과 그레텔 (Hansel and Gretel), when two decades of bastardization of the horror canon have led audiences to believe that cheap thrills are all this genre is about. Not to mention convincing investors who no longer want to experiment that thinking outside the box for once can be an interesting venture.

A lot of people in the industry thought director Kim Gwang-Tae was crazy, when he pitched this project in a desperate attempt to get anything greenlit – two items he had been working on for years never materialized into a finished product, and ending his career as an assistant director wasn't exactly a financially sound option. The (crazy) idea was that of combining German folk legend Rattenfänger von Hameln (The Pied Piper of Hamelin) with the kind of folk horror stories you'd be more likely to find in TV lore like 전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends). Not such a bad premise, if you ask me: the kind of horror tales found in this now 40 year old TV saga more often than not dealt with local folklore, with immediate benefits in terms of cultural affinity. Suddenly focus on tales of mudang, virgin ghosts and foxes with nine tails, and the average Korean moviegoer's penchant for ignoring anything that isn't perceived as part of his reality (reason why sci-fi doesn't really work) might give way to a little more tolerance.

The concept is even more ingenious when you think of this story in allegorical, politically-charged terms: a hermit village in the immediate postwar ruled in the most totalitarian of ways by its headman (a wonderfully acerbic and ominous Lee Seong-Min) is visited fortuitously by a 손님 (a guest, as the title suggests), Woo-Ryong, looking for some respite for his sick child on their way to meet a “Yankee” in Seoul who apparently promised he could cure the little fella from all his chronic ailments. For years the headman has managed to hold control of the villagers simply by demonizing anything that challenged status quo, and the idea of this stranger coming to this community and potentially ruining all his hard work sounds a lot more damaging than the talent he could bring to the table: ridding the rat-infested village of its tiny, persistent rodent friends. You could argue that Kim's allegory (painting the headman as the succession of postwar dictators Korea had to endure, Park Jung-Hee in particular) is a little too pronounced, point that becomes clear when the word 빨갱이 (commie) is uttered, but it nonetheless works wonders as the film goes on and Woo-Ryong comes face to face with just how afraid of change the headman and his retinue of yesmen have become. The film also oozes that quintessentially Korean notion (or, to be a little less judgmental, the quintessential tendency shown by Korea's ruling elite in the last sixty years) that anything can be forgiven when survival is at stake, Machiavellian flair which rears its ugly head from beginning to end in gruesome fashion.

Kim betrays his lack of experience by indulging too much on the first act, which wastes a little longer than you'd want on introducing characters, building a certain ambiance in the village and even spending a moment on a budding relationship of sorts between Woo-Ryong and make-believe village mudang Mi-Sook. By the time the film reaches the 60 minute mark, the young director abruptly switches gears and gives us a sort of reader's digest version of a proper second and third act. But it's all so atmospheric and well acted that you're more than willing to cut him some slack, in no small part because the core thematic tenets of the film are never betrayed. And also because it's got a wonderful cast: Ryu Seung-Ryong and Lee Seong-Min delivering the goods was pretty much a foregone conclusion, as it was expecting nice work from the phenomenal Cheon Woo-Hee – who's finally receiving some attention after 한공주 (Han Gong-Joo). But even Lee Joon seems perfectly comfortable in his new actor garbs, exuding the same kind of confidence he displayed in 풍문으로 들었소 (Heard it Through the Grapevine).

With a wicked third act reminding of 알포인트 (R-Point)'s madness, excellent performances and an enveloping sense of charming macabre, this film manages to do what most recent Korean horror films have failed at: combine homegrown folklore with tried and true genre tropes, in what's one of the most surprising and accomplished debuts of recent memory.

ACTING GRADES

86 이성민 (Lee Seong-Min)
79 류승룡 (Ryu Seung-Ryong)
78 천우희 (Cheon Woo-Hee)
77 김영선 (Kim Young-Seon)
72 정경호 (Jung Kyung-Ho)
70 이민지 (Lee Min-Ji)
68 이준 (Lee Joon)
67 구승현 (Gu Seung-Hyeon)

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