SFIFF: Unhappily ever after

Bluebeard and Hansel and Gretel -- the film fest's fractured, freaky, and feminist fantasies
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Don't go into the woods:
Hansel and Gretel

a&eletters@sfbg.com

We're living in topsy-turvy, fairy tale times: the mighty have fallen, and the once-marginalized have risen. We're painting the White House black, while Wall Street high-fliers are hitting the skids and the once-mocked scientists who cried "global warming" are embraced by Main and K streets. A hardscrabble era calls for equally toughened-up tales that provide moral instruction and plunge into the heart of the narrative's contradictions. Do, er, grittily realistic flicks like Dante Lam's ADD-paced HK cop thriller Beast Stalker (2008), which skirt the periphery of lost-innocent yarns, count? The filmmaker's empathy for his monstrously disfigured villain is unparalleled in both the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault.

The former receives a clever tweak with Pil-Sung Yim's Hansel and Gretel (2007), in which the youthful inmates take over the gingerbread-house asylum. Unwilling to face the fact he's about to become a father, half-grown man-boy Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) flips his car on a lonely stretch of forest freeway where he's found by a sweet little girl, Soojeong (Yeong-Nam Jang). She wordlessly leads him to a charming cottage deep in the woods, the House of Happy Children, occupied by the girl, her siblings Manbok (Eun Won-jae) and Jung-soon (Ji-hee Jin), and their unsettlingly cheery parents. The witchery here is embedded in the power of a child's imagination rather than cannibalism, and it finds a new purpose here: preying on adults with a monstrous, unquenchable will to be loved. The culturally specific shocker crouching in this otherwise gentle shiver-thon fertile with rabbit iconography: a finale of children pleading, cajoling, and whining at the camera directly, which goes on many beats longer than expected. Asian parents and wannabe Octomoms might just want to slice open their wrists and offer themselves to the screen to halt the onslaught.

Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard studies the original tale with a more dispassionate, though no less entertaining, eye. She runs it through a postmodernist's prism by coolly drawing from period artwork, utilizing an archly detached acting style and distancing devices like recycled footage, and framing it all as an imminently malleable yet still dangerous narrative retold by a pair of somewhat-modern-day sisters. A miniature, girlish version of The Last Mistress (2007) star Asia Argento, as feistily portrayed by Lola Creton, Marie-Catherine is less frightened of her hulking, erudite, and exhausted Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) than fascinated by his alien world, his exoticism, and her own fearlessness. More surprising is how we comfortable grow with the deepening romance between the murderous lord and his child bride. In tackling the most pointed fairy tale about violence against women and in the process foregrounding the horror and glory of womanly will, Breillat continues to build on her now less naked, yet no less resonant feminist oeuvre, one that tests the tangled, hazardous constructs of female desire.

BLUEBEARD

Fri/24, 7:15; Sat/25, 9:30; April 29, 4:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki

HANSEL AND GRETEL

Fri/24, 11:15 p.m.; Mon/27, 3:15 p.m., Sundance Kabuki

April 30, 7 p.m., Roxie

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