A Wicked Tale is an experimental film that reworks the cautionary story of Little Red Riding Hood. With a running time of just over 44 minutes, Singaporean director Tzang Merwyn Tong’s debut feature premiered at the 34th Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2005. While there are numerous versions of Little Red Riding Hood across cultures, including “The Panther” from China, Tong’s film directly and deliberately references that of the Grimm Brothers, through dialogue and visual cues.
The film opens with a frame narrative played out with puppets of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf, against which the opening credits flow. This functions to underline the fictionality of the story as well as remind the viewer of the purpose of the Victorian morality play. The story is also a story retold by a narrator, a young man, who is in hospital for a reason that we don’t discover until the final act. He tells us that what we are about to see is the story of a little girl and her “sexual awakening” and the concomitant dangers of “lust and seduction”. The focus then switches to the ‘girl’, Beth, as she toys with a fish that she has taken out of a fish bowl, and then watches as the fish flails helplessly on the marble floor. The cruelty of this action foreshadows Beth’s resistance and revenge on the wolf, after his aborted attempt to assault her.
The first act of the film is told using the form and attributes of silent film and is divided into two parts, Mother of Beth, and Grandma. However, as soon as the action switches to Grandma’s house, the intertitles are dispensed with and dialogue is spoken rather than read. Despite this, some of the attributes of the silent film persist into the second and third acts of the film, in particular the use of the iris shot, or perhaps more appropriately the cropped circle as the lines of the iris are not clearly defined. Further, the film oscillates between the cropped circle, which in many ways functions as an embedded gaze – but not always male – and the portrait shot, refusing the dictates of the contemporary widescreen format.
The wolf here is the charming but dangerous Louis Le Bon who with his pale complexion and curly blonde hair is the antithesis of the dark hairy wolf that usually haunts/hunts Little Red Riding Hood in cinematic variations of the tale. Up to the assault of Beth, the story plays out in a conventional manner. Beth is told to keep on the path by her mother as she goes to visit her grandma who lives in the woods and is unwell. She, as all versions of Red Riding Hood do, wanders off the path, waylaid by the charming ‘wolf’ – here Louis Le Bon. His attempted seduction is thwarted by the appearance of a cousin who recognises the wolf’s dangerous intentions. Louis Le Bon then makes his way to the grandma’s hut before Beth in order to carry out his nefarious desires. The grandma though, is no paragon of virtue as in the original story, but rather is shown as a chain-smoking, obsessive eating and excessive drinking woman of dubious character. She, therefore, is no role model for our heroine, Beth, in her embrace of bodily pleasures. When Louis Le Bon kills her in order to take her place, there is little sympathy for her demise. Beth’s arrival brings about the second act of the film, or the ‘rape’ section, if we read the film as a variation on the rape-revenge film. Despite his best efforts to seduce Beth, Louis Le Bon fails as she recognises him for what he is: a dastardly wolf in sheep’s clothing. Her revenge is swift and remorseless, leaving him literally legless for his sins.
The final act takes place back in the hospital where the film began. This time we recognise the man as Louis Le Bon, but are told by the gossiping nurses that he was a highly ranked member of the mafia, but now, is like a petulant three-year-old child and despite different medications is struggling to come to terms with his literal and metaphorical fall from grace. The nurse looking after him, is Beth, albeit with short hair and a less virginal demeanour. He recoils in terror when she goes to take him for his bath, the dangling necklace taking him back to his nightmare of the wolf and Red Riding Hood. Using a series of still frames, and quick cuts, Tong draws visual parallels between the man in the hospital and the man in the narrated tale, which we are told is just a feverish nightmare. This Beth continues to punish him on behalf of the metafictional Beth in the embedded story and all other violated Red Riding Hoods.
Despite the number of times that Red Riding Hood’s story has been told and retold, Tong manages to do something original and innovative with the cautionary tale of male desire and female fear. Through the use of a frame narrative, and a continued experiment with form and sound, the director produces a film that has contemporary resonance, even given the fact that it was released in 2005. The cast equip themselves well, particularly the lead actors. Evelyn Maria Ng plays Beth with appropriate restraint with subtle hints of forbidden desire communicated through facial and bodily expression so that her transformation from virginal victim to a vengeful virgin is not unexpected, although the manner in which she exacts her revenge is both brutal and shocking. Swedish actor, Johan Ydstrand, embodies charm and danger in equal measure, and his final transformation into the passive victim of the desire of the other is done well.
A Wicked Tale subverts the gendered binaries of the original tale. Rather than attesting to the importance of patriarchal rules and regulation of the female body, the film shows the misconceptions of such binary thinking. While the man as the terrorised and traumatic embodiment of fear is still unusual in the West, this is not the case in many South East Asian horror and gothic films. In fact, fear is not figured as female and the final girl is more Parasite Eve than Laurie Strode. It is no surprise that since its release, it has become a cult film. A Wicked Tale is reminiscent of the experimental films of Cronenberg and Barker with their emphasis on body horror as well as Sofia Coppella’s feminist fable, Boxing Helena. It is clear that Tong is a director whose films deserve a wider release and more recognition outside of Singapore.
Written by Dr. Colette Balmain