The piper must be paid. So goes the old saying, and with good reason - one should always honour one’s promises, but even so there are those which should not be crossed. So the denizens at the centre of the mysterious, hidden village in the debut feature from Korean director Kim Gwang-tae come to discover, as they’re repaid for some not-quite unforgotten sins when a travelling piper and his invalid son come calling.
Kim Woo-ryong is a travelling piper with a crippled leg, journeying to Seoul with his young son after hearing that there is an American doctor there who may be able to treat the boy’s TB if only they can reach the city in time. After walking through the countryside they eventually come across a village which isn’t marked on any map and beg shelter from the village chieftain there. Life in the village seems like a scene from the middle ages, everyone is wearing traditional clothing and there’s something more than a "stranger in town" vibe about the way they look at Woo-ryong and his son Young-nam. The chieftain allows the pair to stay but warns them they can reveal nothing of the outside world to the village’s inhabitants; especially not that the Korean war is already “over” and has been for some time. Later Woo-ryong and Young-nam wander into a village dispute and, in a fit of over-helpfulness, Young-nam exclaims he’s sure his dad can fix the problem (though he doesn’t know what it is). Woo-ryong jumps to the conclusion it must be about the rats which plague the town and offers to take care of them. The chieftain offers him the price of a cow if he can rid the town of rats, but one gets the impression there’s more than one kind of rodent lurking in this strange, isolated place.
If you know the classic children’s fable, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, you likely know the outcome won’t be a pleasant one, though the events of the The Piper turn a little bloodier and even more supernatural than in the Grimm Brothers fairytale. The story starts out pleasantly enough as Woo-ryong and Young-nam start to make friends in the village - Woo-ryong playing his pipe and Young-nam enjoying spending some time with the other children. However, from their very first entrance you can tell there is something very wrong in this community. There’s not just suspicion or curiosity in the way the villagers stare at the strangers, there’s fear too. Woo-ryong is a middle-aged man with a lame leg, and Young-nam is a weedy 10 year old boy with a lung disease. They are no threat to anyone, so what do these people have to fear?
The chieftain himself is obviously quite a sinister fellow. He charms Woo-ryong but lies to him when asked for guidance about the journey on to Seoul and seems to instil nothing but fear in the eyes of the other inhabitants. Woo-ryong strikes up a tentative romance with the village’s reluctant shaman which further raises the chieftain’s concerns - perhaps, he thinks, he doesn’t need to pay this piper after all. As might be expected, there’s a dark past at play here. Everyone is so terrified of the war, which they still believe is going on, and the things they’ve already done to survive it means that they’re prepared to go along with whatever their leader says to maintain their peaceful village life. It's mob mentality at its worst; even those who were growing closer to the pair of strangers are quick to turn on them in a paranoid frenzy.
Like the original story, the moral is that you reap what you sow and if you don’t keep your promises, you deserve everything that’s coming to you. These are people who have lived in difficult times and done cruel things to survive. The rats which plague the town take on an almost supernatural air and have apparently developed a taste for human flesh. They become a kind of metaphor, a haunting presence which refuses to allow the villagers to forget the crimes they’ve committed and reminds them that their present safety was bought with innocent blood. A perfectly pitched fairytale with an all pervading sense of dread and foreboding, The Piper is an impressive effort from first time director Kim Gwang-tae and marks him out as a promising new voice in the world of Korean cinema.
The Piper was screened as part of the 10th London Korean Film Festival in 2015.