Shortly after the Korean War, travelling musician Woo-ryong (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡) and his sickly son Yeong-nam (Goo Seung-hyeon (구승현) embark on a trip to Seoul to treat the youngster’s tuberculosis. On the journey, the exhausted pair are granted refuge at a secluded mountain village presided over by a kindly Elder (Lee Sung-min (이성민), but it quickly becomes clear that something very strange is transpiring amongst the folk residing there. Learning of the severe rat infestation, Woo-ryong boldly offers to rid the village of the vermin, yet when the residents renege on the fee and cast them out, the piper seeks a very unique brand of revenge.
Taking The Pied Piper of Hamelin as its cue, director Kim Kwang-tae’s ‘reimagining’ of the classic European fable into a Korean morality tale is a bland, fractured, and unengaging effort. Aside from some attractive cinematography The Piper consistently appears as if still in the development stages conceptually, which serves to dilute audience interest and lessen thrills – a crucial issue for a film about killer rats.
From the moment it begins, The Piper generates a sense of intrigue as Woo-ryong and son Yeong-nam hide in a secluded cave during a storm, the wind of which blows so strongly that a secret path to a hidden village is revealed. As the duo seek respite there for a day or two, suspense grows as the inhabitants appear to exchange meaningful and worried glances due to the arrival of their new guests. Yet while events are set up promisingly the mysterious nature of the film is largely a direct result of its structure and a strange sense of incompleteness. Occurrences, characters and relationships arise and recede with precious little introduction or general context making the story a rather fragmented and confusing effort. As such, audiences aren’t given any reasons to care for any of the protagonists, or even dislike the antagonists, other than the fact it’s clear a macabre secret is being hidden.
The story itself is a symbolic tale, using the microcosm of a mountain village to articulate how war, history and paranoia looms large in times of unrest and influences people into evil deeds. It’s a solid premise and one that’s full of potential, however director Kim Kwang-tae doesn’t manage to effectively convey the scope of his message. In part this is due to the fractured story and characterisation, but also the rats simply aren’t the potent menace they ought to be and are not frightening in the slightest, and though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper doesn’t really fit into either genre, generally conforming to genial drama tropes. Furthermore, Welcome to Dongmakol and Moss dealt with similar subject matter and while viewing it’s impossible not to think of these superior examples with nostalgia.
The fractured narrative structure makes it even more difficult for Ryoo Seung-ryong to carry The Piper on his shoulders, and though he tries his best to infuse the role and the film with an infectious energy, it often translates as overly theatrical and bothersome. His burgeoning romantic relationship with widowed shaman Mi-sook falls completely flat due to the lack of development and contrivances within the script. As Mi-sook, Cheon Woo-hee – certainly the best actor in the film – desperately tries to wrangle something from the role and manages to infuse some palpable emotion in a scene here and there, yet as the audience is never given any information about her or as to why empathy should be given, her efforts are tragically wasted. Lee Sung-min isn’t provided with scenes of gravitas to make him a worthy nemesis, while K-pop star/actor Lee Joon makes blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances. The most compelling role falls to youngster Goo Seung-hyeon as tuberculosis suffering Yeong-nam, who brings a surprising amount of empathy to the story.
Though billed as a fantasy-horror The Piper is ultimately neither. While the cinematography is consistently gorgeous and director Kim Kwang-tae’s premise has merit, the film suffers enormously from a fractured structure that conveys it as incomplete, resulting in audiences unable to engage or empathise with characters and events, or even enjoy the sporadic thrills.