The Piper (Sonnim)

Korea (2015) Dir. Kim Gwang-tae

Leave it to the Koreans to take a popular, timeless fairy tale for kids and turn it into a horrifying nightmare film to give everyone the willies! They did it before with the rather spooky Hansel & Gretel back in 2008, now it’s the Pied Piper of Hamlin to get the K-horror treatment.

Set shortly after the Korean War, wandering entertainer Woo-ryong (Ryu Seung-ryeong) and his TB-stricken son Young-nam (Goo Seung-hyun) are travelling on foot to Seoul where they hope Young-nam will be treated for his illness. They happen upon a small village, the chief of which (Lee Sung-min) invites them to stay, with food and payment in return for work around the village.

The village has a severe rat infestation that Woo-ryong offers to fix, although this is the job of the village shaman, a young widow named Mi-Sook (Chun Woo-hee). However, Woo-ryong’s elaborate plan succeeds in driving out the rats and he becomes the new hero of the hour – until he and Mi-Sook fall for each other. Suddenly, the Chief decides Woo-ryong must leave.

Perhaps it isn’t so much of a shock that a once charming family friendly fairy tale could yield such a nightmarish interpretation given that its creators were called the Brothers Grimm! However, the original Korean title of Sonnim translates to The Guest which fits in more with the main narrative as illustrated through a key revelation that appears during a flashback sequence.

First time director Kim Gwang-tae was perhaps unlucky that this film has slipped under the international a little by being eclipsed by The Wailing a year later, which also dealt with the paranormal affecting a remote village. Unlike The Wailing, Kim’s film has less of an epic feel and a simpler story which it takes time telling, in a case of a steady build to a gruesome climax.

Much of the first hour is fairly light and quite playful in its tone with the arrival of Woo-ryong and Young-nam to the impoverished village, their upbeat demeanours belying the hardships they have suffered in the war and those yet to come. Aside from Young-nam’s TB, Woo-ryong has a terrible limp from being shot in the leg, whilst his wife and Young-nam’s mother was killed during the conflict.

Despite this, the pair keep their spirits up and of those around them through music, building toys for the kids like a swing, and their generally cheery dispositions, although it isn’t until the rats are finally tempted away by Woo-ryong’s musical magic that the villagers warm to them. Only the Chief is willing to give the newcomers a go at first, the others opt to keeping a safe distance between them, including Mi-Sook.

With a jolly musical score comprised of traditional folk-style jigs with a traditional Korean flavour to them performed via recorders and penny whistles to give off an authentic medieval feel, it is hard to imagine that a turn to the dark side is about to occur. The idea of the village still having a shaman in the 1950’s is a slight warning sign for us in the west but we must remember that Asia was a bit behind us on this front.

The post Korean War setting is therefore no accident, allowing Kim and co-writer Kim Dong-Woo to inject a little political allusion into the story, taken on a delicious ironic bent with the location being in the South. This manifests itself largely through the actions of the Chief and his loyal son Nam-soo (Lee Joon) in how they manipulate the less intelligent villagers.

It doesn’t occur to Woo-ryong to question it but he is asked by the Chief not to tell the villagers that the war was actually over and keep other such relevant information about the outside world to himself. Neither man reads or speaks English so when Woo-ryong presents a note with an address for a hospital in Seoul, it in fact reads “Kiss my ass, Monkey”, but this does become important later on.

A pervasive rhetoric proclaiming distrust for “commies” provides the irony for the audience to relish with the Chief’s obvious despotic rule, his living in splendour compared to squalor of the others and his controlling of the news. One would hope this was merely a chance to flex some satirical muscle, but with the strained relationship between North and South Korea of late, it was more likely to be a direct shot at Kim Jong-un.   

But it all adds up, as does the slow burning and chaste romance between Woo-ryong and Mi-Sook, to lead to Woo-ryong’s stealthily constructed downfall within the village and the extreme revenge he exacts in the final act. It’s a bloodfest of grisly proportions and plays upon every nightmare engendered by Murophobia and then some, with an added dose of karma thrown in for good measure.

With the supernatural element downplayed, the true horror lies in the behaviour of the villagers and the ease and swiftness at which they turn on Woo-ryong following the trumped up charges from the Chief. Arguably the most frightening image is in the closing moments which I won’t divulge but suffice to say, the sins of the fathers cut deep for a man who has lost everything.

Ryu Seung-ryeong is a likeable protagonist-cum-scarily vengeful victim, sparring nicely with Lee Sung-min’s duplicitous Chief and gelling well with innocent Goo Seung-hyun as Young-nam but the standout here is Chun Woo-hee. Having already impressed in the harrowing Han Gong-Ju, Chun delivers another tortured performance as Mi-Sook, possessing the same fragile, girlish innocence behind the haunted, ethereal exterior of the reluctant shaman.

It’s been three years since The Piper and Kim Gwang-tae has yet to delivers a follow-up, a shame as this is a strong debut. Horror fans will need to exercise some patience ahead of the gory pay-off, the rest of us will find this to be a well made, subtly disarming film providing incisive social commentary and gnarly, pinprick chills.