“Those shoes look good on you. They don't look good on just anyone. But why do they look so familiar?”
After finding her usually cold and emotionless husband in bed with another woman, optician, and shoe-fetishist, Sun-jae walks out on him and her stale marriage, taking their six year old, ballet-dancing daughter Tae-soo with her. Moving into a rather decrepit apartment, she nevertheless decides to turn it into a home as she waits for her new eye-clinic to open. Of course, this fresh start is soon to be crippled by a series of unsettling and bloodthirsty events, as Sun-jae finds the titular pair of red shoes on a subway train and inadvertently unleashes their curse when she takes them home with her. Haunted shoes, eh? Well, only in Asian Cinema could such a plot device be taken seriously. And, in no way connected with Powell and Pressburger's classic movie of the same name, director Kim Yong-gyun manages to inject a cruel streak of malevolence into his tale of absurd obsession and horror. You see, these shoes (which, by the way, aren't actually red at all, but a gaudy pink) have a nasty habit of performing impromptu amputations on the fools who wear them, and/or revealing the tragic back-story that brought them into being via ghostly visions and flashbacks. The scary thing is that the shoes provoke envy in those that see them - Sun-jae's best friend who just has to have them for a night, the two schoolgirls in the shock opening who fight over them and, worst of all, the battle of wills between mother and daughter for possession of the high-heeled horrors.
“Mummy, I hate you! Your feet are ugly!”
In fact, there is a very definite nod to The Lord Of The Rings and its depiction of the temptation of the One Ring corrupting all those who come into contact with it. You could substitute Smeagol and Deagol for Sun-jae and little Tae-soo, except that they wouldn't be able to get their big hairy feet into those dainty little shoes. Scenes of mother and daughter battling on the floor over who gets to wear them are quite disturbing and, once again, Korean filmmakers prove adept at placing children in severe jeopardy with a conviction that would have Hollywood quaking in their loafers. There are several other sequences involving little Tae-soo who, I have to say, is one of the ugliest kids I've ever seen, that will have you palpitating, because with a Korean horror film you know that there simply aren't any limits. They may not be all that graphic, and The Red Shoes really only has a couple of gory moments, but the acts depicted and the moral bludgeoning they contain often go way beyond the call of duty. Which is why the inevitable American remakes come across so half-baked and watered-down. They're just too afraid to push the same emotional buttons. Kim Yong-gyun actually probes a little deeper into the relationships that characters have with one another, scraping away the formulaic etiquette that, more often than not, leads such narratives into cliché-ville. Sun-jae strikes up a fledgling romance with the young interior designer who is working on her new clinic, but even when things begin to progress after a somewhat awkward beginning, their bond is confused and difficult. We see two grown people who are obviously attracted to each other, but mutually wary and tentative of the other's motives. The designer, In-cheol, is an unusual character, likeable enough guy but lazy, and not at all the conventional hero that can comfort and protect the leading lady. Anybody remember the TV show “Petrocelli”, about the lawyer building his own house? Seasons would go by and he'd never be any closer to finishing the place. Well, In-cheol is cut from the same cloth, his work-ethic dependant on his getting the vibe for his design. And he's getting some pretty mixed-up vibes from Sun-jae, all right.
“You know Daddy went far away. So how could he come here?”
This unique, almost abstract style infects the entire drama, keeping you guessing because there is no clear path being taken. There are visions and dreams and a sense of dislocation that plagues the narrative. What is the significance of the subway and the Goksung train station? Just who is the old hag living in the basement of the apartment block? The haunting aspect is particularly vague until the backstory begins to kick in, and it is here that the film lets itself down, I feel. The flashbacks, detailing a doomed love affair and the commencement of the curse, take a turn that is a little too predictable. Necessary, perhaps, but a tad too familiar to hold any surprises. The nightmare quality that Kim Yong-gyun achieves so well during the rest of the film is dispersed whenever we are transported back to the genesis of the curse, the plot becoming too obvious and hackneyed. That said though, there are still some terrific images splashed across the screen - atrocities in the rain and an audacious set-piece slaying during a stageshow.
“Hurry and return them. Or else you'll die like her!”
But it is Kim Hye-soo that carries the film with a majestic performance that radiates a dangerous instability. She is terrific, playing the difficult role with a lot of conviction and sincerity. Running the full gamut of emotions throughout the course of the film, she effortlessly anchors the plot no matter how ridiculous it may become. From the forlorn depths of despair to giggly, girlish joy and from abject terror to pure, unbridled rage, she stamps her presence onto the film with frightening determination. And a lot of this is actually done during the quieter moments, with just an expression, just the look in her eyes. Asian leading ladies are so much stronger than their western counterparts and refreshingly unafraid to come across as dark, brooding and quite unhinged. Almost three decades on from the screaming knife-fodder of Laurie Strode and her ilk, Hollywood still dishes out the lamentable one-dimensional floozies of Rachel MacAdams' Lisa from Red Eye. Another strange thing about Kim Hye-soo is how her face seems to change from scene to scene - sometimes very attractive, sometimes decidedly un-attractive. I'm not sure if this is intentional, or not. What matters, though, is the performance, and it is riveting, even when the film occasionally stumbles with corny dialogue and the odd, perplexing interlude. That scene in the police station doesn't quite sit right, in my opinion. And there's a pretty naff love jingle that plays whenever Sun-jae and In-cheol are together.
“I feel so much younger with these shoes. My feet feel like dancing on their own.”
Another clever thing about the film is the way in which you suddenly become aware that there is more going on than just a pair of possessed shoes. Questions begin to surface surrounding certain characters that are like an itch you can't scratch and it is this final element that raises the film well above average, in my opinion, and adds considerably to the growing unease. Oh, it's got plenty of the requisite shocks - we even get what could be an Asian horror in-joke when little Tae-soo makes scary faces in the mirror with her straggly dark hair hanging down over her face - but it is at its most unsettling when detailing the horrible disintegration of the mind. The climax may be a little over-cooked, yet strangely under-nourished, with the director content to let things spiral into a kaleidoscope of anguish and insanity, but the film still has the power to wrong-foot the viewer with skilfully placed moments of illogicality that, only come the final resolution, become painfully relevant.
I've seen this film twice now. The first time round I found it unsatisfying and a little disjointed. I wasn't gripped and couldn't feel anything for the characters as they all seemed rather un-likeable and antagonistic. But, with this return visit, I felt drawn much deeper into the warped paranoia and twisted plot turns that Kim Yong-gyun creates. Kim Hye-soo's bravura performance has a lot to do with this, of course. There are three stories at work here, all linked by the shoes. And if the tragic tale from the past seems too traditional to crank up the tension, then the demented sagas interweaving in the present more than compensate. A delicious and devious little chiller that mixes intense motivations and bizarre imagery to often great and disturbing effect. Fans of Asian horror could do far worse than going for a walk in The Red Shoes.