★★★★ out of ★★★★★
An emotionally brutal and physically bloody South Korean take on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Directed by Kim Kwang-tae
With his first and only writing and directing credits, Kim Kwang-tae has crafted a motion picture that’ll stay with you long after the screen fades to black. The Piper (2015) — or Sonnim (meaning “the guest”) as it’s known by its original Korean title — is a retelling of the Pied Piper legend that’s been kicking around since the Middle Ages.
In The Piper‘s version, we’re introduced to a kind and gentle widower, Woo-ryong [Seung-ryong Ryu; Psychokinesis (2018)], who’s walking to Seoul with his ten year old son, Young-nam, shortly after the end of the Korean War. Young-nam [Goo Seung-hyun; TV’s A Thousand Kisses (2011 – 2012)] has tuberculosis and supposedly there’s a doctor in Seoul who can help.
The pair of wanderers come across a village with a serious rat problem. Woo-ryong makes a deal with the Village Chief [Sung-min Lee; The Spy Gone North (2018)] to get rid of the village’s rat infestation and in return the weary travelers will have food and lodging for a few days as well as a decent lump of cash to take to Seoul once the job is done.
Needless to say (and yet I’m going to say it anyway), after the man and his son successfully save the village from the plague of rats, things go poorly for the helpful travelers. Astoundingly poorly. On account of the Village Chief being a jealous, petty, and insanely guilt-ridden man. As expected, and in keeping with the original Pied Piper legend, scores are ultimately settled.
The flow of the narrative in The Piper is a thing of beauty. What starts out as a charming and occasionally even comedic look at rural Korean life in the 1950s takes a masterfully gradual turn towards darkness and death. A suspicious glance here, an odd request there, and — almost imperceptibly — the movie shifts from smiles, friendship, and curiosity to superstition, desperation, and violence.
While the tonal shift is artfully done, the village in The Piper has a much more complicated than necessary backstory detailing its inhabitant’s past crimes. The saga has to do with people who get kicked out of their village and start a new village, but then the ones who kicked them out leave that first village and want to join the new village…. and the audience is left saying, “Ummm… what?”
It doesn’t help that all of this is revealed in a number of flashbacks that aren’t always immediately recognizable as flashbacks. It only takes a second or two before you go, “Oh! It’s a flashback,” but that kind of thing can pull you out of the movie a bit. Happily, all of this craziness is a fairly minor footnote in the main story. Though it does help explain where the rats came from to begin with.
Seung-ryong Ryu’s performance as the traveling piper matched against Sung-min Lee as the leader of the village is the best thing about this film. Both actors effortlessly demand the audience’s attention whenever they’re in scenes of their own, but put them together and the way they play off of each other’s characters is a joy to behold.
Setting The Piper in the central Korean highlands, made it that much easier for the cinematographer to get some spectacular shots. Lush forests, green fields, and rugged terrain come to life with some well-placed camera angles and drone footage. Period costumes and excellent set dressing are the icing on the rural post-war South Korean cake.
Ultimately, as a debut outing by a first time writer/director who apparently doesn’t even have any short films he’s willing to tell anyone about, The Piper is a fantastic piece of filmmaking. Aside from the overly complicated flashbacks — which may or may not seem as complicated to a South Korean audience — this retelling of The Pied Piper legend with a distinctly Korean flavor is solid and makes for a very entertaining, albeit emotionally dense, experience.
The Piper is available for streaming via Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and so on.
Review by Robert Zilbauer.