‘The Red Shoes’ review

5 10 2010

[written by writer, reviewer and editor, Robert Hood]

The Red Shoes [aka Bunhongshin] (South Korea-2005; dir. Yong-gyun Kim)

The Red Shoes is an effective, if not flawless, South Korean ghost film in the J-Horror tradition, inspired, at least in part, by the Hans Christian Anderson fable, “De røde Skoe”. There are, however, crucial differences. Anderson’s tale reflects, rather brutally, on vanity and the consequences of neglecting proper Christian piety. That being said, the story has its fair share of horrific elements:

And when she danced toward the open doors of the church, she saw it guarded by an angel with long white robes and wings that reached from his shoulders down to the ground. His face was grave and stern, and in his hand he held a broad, shining sword.

“Dance you shall!” he told her. “Dance in your red shoes until you are pale and cold, and your flesh shrivels down to the skeleton. Dance you shall from door to door, and wherever there are children proud and vain you must knock at the door till they hear you, and are afraid of you. Dance you shall. Dance always.”

“Have mercy upon me!” screamed Karen. But she did not hear the angel answer. Her shoes swept her out through the gate, and across the fields, along highways and byways, forever and always dancing.

(translated by Jean Hersholt)

Anderson’s young protagonist finds salvation only after she begs the local executioner to cut off her feet. But there is forgiveness and reconciliation for her. South Korean director Yong-gyun Kim’s killer shoes (in fact, pink rather than red — as for socio-historical reasons the title of Anderson’s fable is familiarly known as “The Pink Shoes” in Korea) provoke (and are provoked by) desire and a sense of betrayal; in the end his protagonist is offered insight but little by way of redemption. In terms of bloodiness, The Red Shoes is even more horrific than the original tale.

Yong-gyun Kim’s film draws on Anderson’s fable to forge a psychological thriller dressed up as a more generic J-Horror ghost story. The basic idea is this: a pair of haunted shoes are loose in the vicinity of a railway station, cursing those who take them and often displaying a penchant for eating the illicit wearer’s feet. On the surface, then, this is standard “cursed object” fare. The result is stylish and creepy, with an impressive splattering of gore and a wealth of beautifully realised set pieces, but stumbles toward the end by including unnecessary and overly familiar contemporary horror elements drawn from such box-office hits as the Japanese Ring.

The story: Sun-jae Hun has forgone her career as an opthamologist to take on the traditional woman’s role of housewife and mother — but it has proven unrewarding. Her husband is unloving, critical and emotionally distant; when she catches him in a premeditated act of infidelity, she takes her daughter Tae-soo (who is less than cooperative), finds alternative accommodationà la the troubled mother and daughter from Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, and sets in motion a plan to re-open her Eye Clinic. In the midst of her personal chaos, she finds something that appeals to her only pleasure in life: shoes. On a train she finds a pair of abandoned pink pumps — shoes which, we eventually realise, were seeking someone with Sun-jae’s precise psychological profile. Taking the shoes results in jealous arguments with her young daughter, who also desires the shoes, bloody nightmares, even bloodier death, growing emotional instability and eventual despairing comprehension. It also results in the appearance of a spooky female ghost and other J-Horror standards.

According to David Kalat in his excellent book on the genre, J-Horror: the Definitive Guide to the Ring, The Grudge and Beyond(Vertical, 2007), some of the more unnecessary and generic elements of the film came by way of director of photography, Tae-kyeong Kim, who had been responsible for the successful Korean-horror film, The Ghost [Ryeong] in 2004. Apparently there is a director’s cut of The Red Shoes that was released to Korean DVD in which Yong-gyun Kim restores to the film his original more-psychologically driven agenda. His intent, however, is clear even in the compromised version.

What keeps the film from being a mere J-horror knock-off, in fact, is the fine acting, the effective realisation of Yong-gyun Kim’s thematic intent, the film’s wonderful attention to telling and resonant detail, and its beautiful cinematography. The ballet sequences and references to the politically sensitive Japanese Occupation that form the ghost’s backstory are impressionistic and evocatively visualised, without becoming obsessed with the need for more thorough exposition. Imagery relating to eyes and sight — particularly faulty sight, as Sun-jae struggles with the re-establishment of her practice as well as her own diagnosed shortsightedness, spending some time with an eye patch — are often literally reflected in a selective use of perspective blurring and a smearing of the audience’s visual field at key moments. This not only focusses our attention on certain elements and hides other information, but also suggests Sun-jae’s selective blindness to aspects of her own life. Such layering and translation of the narrative’s thematic elements into the aesthetic of the film give it a very distinctive and committed feel.

And as Sun-jae, actress Hye-su Kim’s performance is quietly excellent, delicately nuanced and with great retrospective insight, gaining particular power when set against the film’s more melodramatic tendencies. It both grounds the narrative in reality and carries a vast emotional load, in a film that is more about a woman’s mental state than it is about the more obvious and conventional spectral curse. Scenes of jealous fights between Sun-jae and her daughter over the shoes are particularly strong, too, dramatically.

It’s a pity that Yong-gyun Kim felt so little confidence in his own ability to handle the unfamiliar horror genre that he was compelled to artificially dress the film to be more in line with the J-horror template — because it is the less generic elements of the film that are clearly its strongest assets. It is a good film and a quality horror drama; I liked it more and more as I thought about it and rewatched key moments.

[Original post can be found at Robert Hood’s site]

[Look out tomorrow for Ghost Appreciation Month‘s very own KV Taylor and her take on The Innocents]

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