The Piper / 손님 (2015) Korean Movie Review

The_Piper_(film)-poster

Introduction

Folklore, Fairy tale, and fables… all of these terms tend to boil down to cautionary tales, or morality plays that try to imbue the audience with a lesson. They are also passed down from generation to generation in the form of oral traditions, and thus the details tend to change along the way. In fact, even the tale’s message could change as the culture changes between different iteration of the tale.

While the current incarnations of these tales may not be their final form, I think the current versions of them would be difficult to beat if they are viewed as the result of a cycle of refinement. However, this does not mean that they cannot change. It is just that it is not easy to change them to result in a better tale. Most likely, you would end up messing things around. The Korean movie “The Piper” (2005) falls into the category.

“Sadly”

“The Piper” (2005), which is a Korean adaptation of “Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale, is a Korean horror (?) movie… I think. It is not easy to classify this movie. There are many versions of this tale, but the tale is creepy no matter what mother goose says. It can be easily told as a horror story around the campfire.

When this tale was adapted into the movie “The Piper” (2005), many changes were made to the tale. This includes the tale’s point of view. All these changes lead you to have to ask the following question. Is the “Friday the 13th” (1980) a horror movie when told from the perspective of Pamela Voorhees?

“It is an interesting question.”

The Tale

For those who were not told this story as a toddler, it goes like the following. In the middle ages, there was a town called Hamelin with a serious rat infestation. Until quite recently, from the point of history, rats were a serious issue in cities or towns. The same can also be said for Korea. Even 40 years ago, kids used to run around catching rats to get the reward put on them by the government. You had to provide the tail as proof.

“Snip snip!”

Back to the tale. One day, a mysterious traveler comes to the city and offers his services. He said he was an expert at getting rid of rats but for a fee. So, the contract was signed. The traveler took out his pipe and started playing. The rats all came out of their holes and started to follow the traveler or piper entranced by the music.

The piper led the rats to the river, and they all drowned. I mean, just the rats. The piper is perfectly fine to come back and collect what he was owed. It is all supernatural and games, but here comes the twist. The townsfolk were like all us people.

“We are cheap!”
“They were cheap, also!”

Once the rats were gone, the town ripped up the contract and was unwilling to pay up. So, the pissed off piper came back to the town one night and started to play his pipe. This time, instead of rats, he led the sleeping kids away. The resolution of the story differs depending on the version.

Some end with the town paying up, and the children were returned. In other versions, it is really a horror tale. While there are many ways of interpreting this tale, one way is to see it as a message to “always honor a contract. A contract is a contract!” Why did I hear this before?

“Was it the short story called ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’?”
“So, the piper is a demon?”
“In any case, do not be cheap!”

The Korean movie “The Piper” (2005) uses the basic framework of the tale. The time period is changed from the middle ages to a few years after the Korean War. That would make it around 1960’s Korea. So, basically, the middle ages. Not a drastic change there.

“Sarcasm!”

The setting is an isolated small village in the mountains somewhere. The village seems to be made of about 30 households. It is a bit of a downgrade from a middle-age town. All of these changes could be viewed as minor compared to the major change. The protagonist of “The Piper” (2005) is the piper himself. Through all the versions of the folk tale, the townsfolk were the protagonists.

The message of the tale only really works when the townsfolk are the protagonists. It is a cautionary tale for the townsfolk, after all. If the piper is the protagonist, the story would be a cautionary tale about not providing services before getting half the fee upfront. While that is a valuable business lesson to learn, it wouldn’t make an engaging folktale.

“Wouldn’t it?”

From a cautionary tale to a revenge story

When viewed from the folktale standards, it could be said that “The Piper” (2005) missed the point. Get used to this if you are interested in Korean entertainment. We miss the point more than we nail it.

“That is Korean culture!”

Setting aside the sarcasm for a moment, what is the point of “The Piper” (2005)? Why adopt the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale if you will not use it properly? Is it about the name value? While the tale is known to Koreans, it is not like anyone was clamoring for a movie. As proof, this movie did not perform well in Korea. No one seemed to get why to make a movie about the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale.

The actual plot of “The Piper” (2005) starts with the piper, who seems like a normal person, and his normal but sick son stumbling upon a mysterious and isolated village while traveling to Seoul, Korea, to see an American doctor. And like most isolated villages in movies, there is something very creepy about this one.

The mood of the village was very unwelcome, but most people are under the misconception that the war, which actually ended a few years ago, was still raging on. At this point, if you have seen enough movies, you get where this is going. Ever since “Deliverance” (1974) starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight was made, backwater towns have been portrayed as places where bad things happen.

This format has basically become a genre onto its own called “Backwoods Horror / Rural Survival.” Some call it the “Redneck” Horror Movies. You have movies like “The Hills Have Eyes” (2006) and “Children of the Corn” (1984). Considering the townsfolks tend to be physically normal humans, the movie is closer to the classic horror movie “The Wicker Man” (1973).

“Not the Nick Cage remake!”

By making the piper and his son the protagonists, “The Piper” (2005) becomes more of a “Backwoods Horror” story, which is an odd choice for an adaptation of “Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale. In the tale, the piper was the monster. Don’t get me wrong.

The townsfolk were jerks, but they were human jerks. Some think that the piper was an incarnation of the devil, which makes sense. Thus, by making the movie into a “Backwoods Horror” story, the townsfolk becomes unnatural lies and not the piper.

“Well… there is nothing supernatural about the townsfolk, but there are deceit, greed, horror, murder on their faces.”

While these are all human traits, you do get the picture. The “Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale does not fit. How should you respond to this? Well, the director made a totally different movie from the original concept. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. There is nothing wrong with a decent “Backwoods Horror” movie. In fact, many Korean movies fall into that category. However, the original concept becomes a problem in the latter parts of the movie; with “Backwoods Horror” movies, the standard formula for the protagonist to stage somewhat of a third act counter strike after being chased around and killed during the second act. There are different degrees to the severity of this counter strike. When this is strong, the movie becomes more of a revenge movie. “The Piper” (2005) is one of these movies. As you may expect, after the piper does his thing and get rid of the rats, he is betrayed and losses something or someone he cares about. It is the cliché thing to do.

“So, it is time for revenge!”
“REVENGE!”

This is where the problems with how the protagonist is defined become evident. In “The Piper” (2015), we are meant to sympathize with the piper as the protagonist and a father. He is just a normal father with a normal son trying to survive in tough times. Or it at least looks like it. When a movie shows the protagonist in this manner, the audience is trained to think like this.

However, as the movie goes on, the audience is confronted by the fact that we actually know nothing about his actions’ motivations. Even though he is on a tight schedule to see the doctor about his son’s illness, the piper lingers at the village even though everyone wants him gone as soon as possible. He is the one that keeps shoving his nose into the matters of the village. He is the one that offers his services to the village. In fact, all of the sufferings he endures is actually the result of his actions.

“It is literately his fault.”

Also, he suddenly has almost supernatural powers over the rats that come out of nowhere. Thus, when it is time to rampage on a mission of revenge in the vein of the classic horror movie “Carrie”(1976), the audience doesn’t know how to feel. First, the piper is really to blame here.

Second, who is the piper anyway? Third, you realize that the piper is the real monster of the story. Yes, the village people are bad. However, they end up being just plain human bad. In fact, the mystery surrounding the village is pretty lackluster when all is said.

“Is that the big secret?”
“Yes, bad deeds have been done but…meh.”

In the end, you actually end up symphonizing with the villager since they seemed to have pissing off what you might end up thinking as a supernatural god. Not the mighty ones but just a regional god who is not too bright.

“Rat god, maybe?

Problems with adaptations

This movie’s issues are actually a shame as it has a beautiful visual scene like when the piper is doing his thing. They are hauntingly memorable. When you drill down to the core of the problem, it is the adaptation at fault. The “Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale is about the terribly flawed townsfolk encountering a supernatural entity and learning their lesson.

If you switch that relationship around like in “The Piper” (2015), the story becomes a supernatural entity encountering some terribly flawed townsfolk. This means that the protagonist seriously outclasses the antagonists. Where is the horror in that? Imagine if, at the end of “The Wicker Man” (1973), rather than the protagonist being sacrificed in the big burning statue, he suddenly turns into a demon for some reason and kills everyone.

“It would ruin the movie.”
“Okay, at the moment, it might look cool. But it would still ruin the movie.”

If this were a revenge action movie like “John Wick” (2014) starring Keanu Reeves, this would work fine. However, “The Piper” (2015) is a “Backwoods Horror” movie. It is not ironically trying to flip the genre on its head or provide meta-commentary about the genre.

It is not “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” (2010) starring Tyler Labine and Alan Tudyk. It is not “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012) starring Chris Hemsworth. “The Piper” (2015) is just a “Backwoods Horror” movie that was poorly conceived at the end.

The Curtain call

“So, is this movie a horror movie?”

I would have to say yes with a bit of reservation. It is just that I was not scared of the protagonist. “The Piper” (2015) ends up being a failed adaptation attempt as it didn’t get the point of both the source material and the type of movie it was trying to be. This is a shame since it is clear that a lot of effort was put in. The cast is on average decent with some notable veteran character actors.

The cinematography was interesting at points and adequate at others. Even the idea of working with the “Pied Piper of Hamelin” tale was not without merit. I have not seen many movies digging into that material. The movie also includes social isolation and prejudice against leprosy, which the latter is not talked about nowadays that much.

“Is leprosy still relevant?”

It is just that first time director Kim Gwang-Tae failed to handle the ambition of the project. At least, it is an interesting failure and worth a watch. It will not blow you away, but you might be intrigued.

Score: C- or 3.75/10

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