On one day during my miserable graduate school years, one of the seniors in my advisor professor’s biology laboratory told me about his personal aversion to rodents. As a guy who grew up in a farming village, he had vivid memories of how rats used to scurry above the ceiling whenever he was trying to sleep at night, and that was why he did not want to handle even those relatively clean rodents to be used as test animals. Fortunately for him, our laboratory mainly used microorganisms instead of animals, so there was not much problem in his steady progress toward a doctoral degree.
He also did not like to watch any movies associated with rodents for the same reason (he even refused to watch “Ratatouille” (2007) in spite of my recommendation), and that is why I am sure that he will definitely cringe at the synopsis of South Korean film “The Guest”, which incorporates the elements of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” into its dark horror story. Besides many other disturbing moments in the film, the movie has a couple of creepy sequences featuring countless rats scurrying here and there around the screen, and that will be more than enough to trigger his good old muriphobia.
It is around the time shortly after the Korean War was over, and Woo-ryong (Ryoo Seung-ryong) and his young son Young-nam (Goo Seung-hyeon) are on their long journey to Seoul. While he looks all right in his lively appearance, Young-nam has been seriously ill, and Woo-ryong, a caring father who has earned his living as a vagabond entertainer, hopes that his son will get a proper medical treatment at the US Army hospital in Seoul. They are still far from their destination as they slowly walk through mountain forests, and Woo-ryong is not very fit to travel long on feet due to the leg injury he sustained during the war, but he keeps holding onto his small hope while staying close to his sick son with care and love.
After spending their another night on the road, Woo-ryong and his son come across a gate leading to somewhere on the next day, and they soon enter a remote mountain village when its people are about to celebrate a baby’s first birthday. For some unknown reason, they are not very eager to welcome Woo-ryong and Young-nam despite their celebratory mood, but the Mayor (Lee Sung-min) lets Woo-ryong and Young-nam stay in the village for a while as their guests, and Woo-ryong provides some entertainment using his pipe.
Though the Mayor, Woo-ryong learns about the ongoing problem in the village. Although the village luckily remained safe and intact during the war, rats suddenly began to appear around the village at some point, and these rodents have been continuously increased in their number while no one has any effective solution to exterminate them once for all.
While he does not have a magic pipe like the Pied Piper, Woo-ryong has considerable knowledge on rats, and he has a good idea for getting rid of them. Once the Mayor promises him handsome payment for this job, he instantly begins to work on his plan while Young-nam is taken care of by Mi-sook (Cheon Woo-hee), a young village shaman who experienced a very disconcerting thing right after Woo-ryong and his son arrived at the village.
As implied by that striking moment, something is not right about the village besides its rodent problem, and the movie slowly starts to build up the ominous aura around its seemingly normal and peaceful rural background. Something bad did happen in the past, but it looks like the villagers do not tell everything to Woo-ryong. While being nice to Woo-ryong and his son, Mi-sook often looks worried about some matter she would rather not tell them, and that is probably why she starts to consider leaving the village along with them. The Mayor, who turns out to be as untrustworthy as the Mayor of Hamelin, starts to regard Woo-ryong as another problem to be taken care of, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that there will be the inevitable moment of betrayal and double-cross later in the story.
And it is around that point where the movie begins to stumble and never recovers from that. The movie is equipped with good atmosphere to draw our attention, and I enjoyed its highlight moments including an impressive sequence in which Woo-ryong executes his clever plan all over the village, but its story and characters are too thin to maintain our interest. When the villagers show that they can be as vicious as the town people in “Dogville” (2003), it is already a foregone conclusion that there is only one possible ending waiting for them, and you do not have to be familiar with the Piped Pier story for guessing what that will be. The climax part feels choppy and half-baked while not giving enough emotional payoff to satisfy us, and I personally think the final scene is merely heartless and pointless.
It must be pointed out that Ryoo Seung-ryong and the other main cast members are good actors, but most of their talents are not fully utilized in the movie. Ryoo manages to carry the film with his own presence, but his character often feels bland and uninteresting in spite of his efforts. While Lee Sung-min is effectively duplicitous, Lee Joon is rather flat as the Mayor’s sullen son, and Cheon Woo-hee, who was unforgettable in “Han Gong-ju” (2013), is wasted in her underdeveloped role.
While being a sort of cross between “Welcome to Dongmakgol” (2005), “Moss” (2010), and “Bedevilled” (2010), “The Guest” is an interesting attempt as the variation of a well-known western folk tale, but it is unfortunately hampered by its weak plot and characterization. I watched along with a certain amount of interest during its first half, but then I began to observe it from the distance as distracted by its flaws, and I eventually became disappointed during its lackluster second half. Of course, my senior guy will never watch this movie at any chance, but I do not feel like recommending it to him anyway.