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A Wicked Tale

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wicked1.jpgA re-imagining of a fairytale may sound like nothing new, if you think about Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods or, more recently, Gregory Maguire’s Wicked or the Shrek films. In the case of A Wicked Tale, Tzang Merwyn Tong has rendered his re-imagined version of Little Red Riding Hood with exquisite grace and seductiveness, transporting the familiar fairytale into a world where grandmothers are not always doddering and absent-minded, and where wolves do not always have great big teeth nor are the damsels always in distress.

The film opens in a setting about as unfairytale-like as you can imagine: a man sits in a wheelchair in a cold, hospital-like setting, his hollow-eyed stare and haunted voice suggesting something out of a sci-fi dystopia rather than any story that would end with “happily ever after”. Then the story whisks us into a different world: Little Red Riding Hood aka Beth, dolled up in virginal white, about to embark on her legendary walk to her grandmother’s house – and what will she find there?

To answer that question would give away too much about the film, but suffice to say that everything comes together impeccably to put us rapidly, irresistibly, under the film’s spell. The world of this fairytale is a luscious landscape of hyperreality, moving from verdant forest to a shadow-cast interior where the air is thick with possibility – the grandmother’s cottage never looked like that in the books I had as a child. Yet, don’t be misled by the gothic overtones of the film’s publicity materials. The film itself employs a far more subtle vision, beautifully sketched out with careful art direction, lighting, set design and costumes.

wicked2.jpgAs for the characters who inhabit this world, the actors hits exactly the right post-modern notes, even though they don’t necessarily have a lot to say. The dialogue is fairly sparse, so eyes, hands and body do most of the acting – from Evelyn Maria Ng’s doe-eyed waif of a protagonist, to Johan Ydstrand’s predatory yet vulnerable wolf. Instead of words, it was often the music that effortlessly carried the narrative from scene to scene to twist and back again.

I’ll be the first to admit that as the film unfolded, I started to wonder if this was going to  be yet another riff on objectifying a woman as both virgin and vixen. To an extent it is – the camera focuses longingly on Beth’s rosebud lips, her fingers curling tightly around the hem of her bright white cotton dress. So while on the one hand this modern fairytale allows Little Red Riding Hood to become something neither quite virgin nor vixen, on the other hand what she turns into is hardly sugar and spice and all things nice. After all, this is, in the filmmakers’ words, “a psycho-erotic re-imagination of the Little Red Riding Hood story” – which puts it closer to the tradition of thriller or horror films with women pro-/antagonists than a proper subversion of the fairytale paradigm.

Still, for what it sets out to do, A Wicked Tale is wicked enough. It’s pitched and paced right so that it doesn’t feel like it’s running for 45 minutes, and it refreshes the age-old fairytale while remaining true to the original spirit. Forget the bedtime version you grew up with. Tzang Merwyn Tong has conjured a much more provocative and inviting tale – all the better to draw you in, my dear.

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