Say the words "fairy tale", and you'll evoke a different response from everyone. To some, the term implies any story that contains cute, happy-go-lucky woodland nymphs who fill the forests with echoing laughter and mischief. To others, it conjures a darker subtext, with witches, goblins, and bogeys who punish meddling mortals...usually in ways that reek of poetic justice. For me, it's somewhere in between...the "lighter" aspects of your typical Grimm brothers tale or Hans Christian Anderson story betray a much darker moral and sexual patina. The good girl or boy might be rewarded, but you can rest assured that there is a hefty price to pay in terms of fear, loneliness, and loss of innocence. So, with this heady brew of morality and terror, it's often interesting to see fairy tales "brought to life" on the screen, but too often the story and subtext give way to sheer spectacle (e.g. Ridley Scott's mixed-bag Legend). It seems that truly fractured fairy tales come from the least obvious places...even from Singapore, as is the case with Tzang Merwyn Tong's exquisite, artful short film A Wicked Tale.
Pretty young Beth (Evelyn Maria Ng) is tasked by her mother to go to Grandma's house to deliver a basket of goodies...but not before mother warns Beth of the dangers of talking to strangers. Along the way, she is stopped by Louis Le Bon (our "wolf" in Danish Rock Star Johan Ydstrand's body), who is definitely a stranger, albeit a mysteriously charming and gentlemanly stranger. Despite her mother's warnings, and those of her Uncle Charlie (who is apparently a gardener or landscaper instead of the more traditional "woodsman"), she accepts a gift from Le Bon...a bright red, incredibly phallic lollipop, which Beth proceeds to tongue nervously. Le Bon sends Beth on her merry way, but it's clear that he's already hatched his plan. Using an apparent short cut, Le Bon arrives at hash-smoking Grandma's house just long enough before Beth so that he can beat her to death, and sit in her bed waiting for Beth to arrive. When Beth shows up, she enters grandma's house, where she finds that Le Bon is there waiting. Now, it must be said that Le Bon has done absolutely nothing to conceal his identity. He just curls up in Grandma's bed, lights up a joint, and immediately starts flirting with Beth. This is particularly interesting because either A.) Beth doesn't really care, as she is so caught up in this mysterious man's charms, or B.) She is so symbolically "innocent" that she isn't particularly predisposed to noticing that her Grandma suddenly looks and talks oddly like the man who, not a half hour before gave her a symbolic candy penis to suck on, or maybe C.) A little bit of both. Either way, Beth just goes along with Le Bon's little game, and the sexual tension just builds and builds to an almost unbearable level. We, the viewers (especially male viewers) are torn between wanting Beth to get nekkid and wanting Uncle Charlie or somebody to bust in and rescue Beth from what is, let's face it, a rather creepy, slimy dude who's clearly just trying to shag her rotten. I digress. The "seduction" continues, and Le Bon even manages to convince Beth to smoke some dope...and he's pretty much straightforward with her about why she should smoke it...to relax her inhibitions. Suddenly, Uncle Charlie busts in, and from that moment, A Wicked Tale gets bloody. I cannot and will not ruin the surprises and twists that the remainder of this short film has in store, but even if you somehow see them coming, they will lose none of their eerie, timely impact.
What we're left with is a stunning, visceral, and absolutely goregeous film. This ain't the version of Little Red that you grew up with. In fact, it's fairly unique in film history...the closest cousin to A Wicked Tale might be Neil Jordan's underrated The Company of Wolves, which also dealt with wolves as symbols for the dangers that girls face when they become women (i.e. sex). But where that film may have missed the mark due to its obtuse symbolism and over-the-top special effects, A Wicked Tale succeeds mostly due to its simplistic approach. Director Tzang Merwyn Tong doesn't spare us the point of what's actually happening here, but the way he says it makes it one of the most original treatments of the Little Red story in cinematic history.
Tong attains a particularly lofty height with one aspect of A Wicked Tale...the characterizations. Aside from being astoundingly beautiful and having a flighty, childlike voice (that we don't hear until halfway into the film...but more on that later), Evelyn Maria Ng's "Beth" is a character defined by two distinct features: her body language and her costuming. Beth is an archetypal "Little Red" in some ways; doe-eyed, waifish, and innocent, but her deeper characterization depends on the viewer making associations based upon her wardrobe...first a girlish red frockdress and Mary Jane shoes, and then a seductive and suggestive undergarment. She is clearly meant to be viewed as the lecherous Louis Le Bon views her...as "dinner" for his sexual appetites. Likewise, Ydstrand's Le Bon is the archetypal "wolf"...he is a predator...nothing more, nothing less. That he (sort of) becomes a sympathetic character near the film's end does not absolve Le Bon from his sins. He is a character defined by his desires...clear as day and deep as a well. These two characters work so well together because they are the literal physical and emotional manifestations of what their archetypes represent so effectively in the source "fairy tale"...the big bad dashing dude with insatiable cravings and his target...a ripe, nubile woman at the height of her sexual blossoming.
Now, aside from all of this pontification and symbolic posturing, A Wicked Tale is a stylistic triumph. Tong utilizes a veritable bonanza of cinematic styles and techniques. The majority of the first act of the film is played out silently, with all of the (minimal) dialogue shown with title cards. Then, he shifts gears and styles to embrace a far grittier, dirtier stylistic approach that is quite appropriate during the second act's seduction sequence. And again, he moves into a slick, polished style during the climactic fight/torture sequence...worthy of Miike or Argento. Finally, he moves into a cold, sterile environment shot in icy hues that bring to mind a Kubrickian aesthetic. Tong is a director who knows the language of film, and he employs every bit of filmmaking savvy at his disposal for great effect. In a lesser film, this would all feel too artsy and pretentious, but here...well, it just works so goddamned well that I'm not going to complain.
The DVD I'm reviewing here is not the final, "retail" product, and thus I cannot speak to such things as "special features". No, this is a DVD-R copy (in PAL, no less) supplied to me by Tong. I'm not sure about future domestic DVD release plans, but I'm in the process of interviewing Tong, so I'll ask him, and then pass the information along to my readers.
According to the INRI Studio website, A Wicked Tale has won several awards at various film festivals around the world, and I can see why. I don't want to overspeak here...this film isn't perfect...but it's got so much going for it that I can't help but recommend it as highly as possible.