'The Red Shoes' [Film and DVD Review]

Engrossing horror flick showcases the talents of Kim Hye-soo
Kim Kyu Hyun (internews)

A note to the readers: Woo Sung Region 3 DVD of "The Red Shoes" contains two versions of the film, substantially different from one another. The non-theatrical and DVD-specific edition is identified as the "Rated for 18 or older" version, so I will refer to it as the "18+" version throughout this review.

"The Red Shoes" is about a pair of dancing shoes (actually pink in the film) with a heavy-duty hex placed on them. As the film opens, a high school girl who tries them on at a subway station has her feet gobbled up by them. The poor girl is left screaming her lungs out, gazing at the stumps of her chopped-off ankles, while the pink shoes in question (in a nicely old-fashioned stop-motion shot) noisily slurps up the gushing rivulets of blood. Oh my. Not exactly Emeric Pressburger material, is it?

Production Notes

A Generation Blue Films/Cineclick Asia/Cinewise Films/Sovik Venture Capital Co-Production. Distributed by DCG+/Showbox. Directed by Kim Yong-gyun. Written by Ma Sang-ryeol, Kim Yong-gyun. Starring Kim Hye-soo, Kim Sung-soo, Park Yeon-ah, Go Soo-hee, Lee Eol, Seo Ha-rim, Son Se-kwang. International distribution by Cineclick Asia
The main plot concerns Sun Jae, a former medical doctor and bourgeois housewife with a six-year-old daughter, who accidentally finds her husband cheating with a younger woman. She moves with her daughter into a dilapidated apartment room (somewhat incongruously located in a high-rise). All is seemingly well, as she prepares to open an eye clinic with the help of her new romantic interest, a slightly oily interior decorator In Cheol (Kim Sung-soo).

The trouble begins when she filches the cursed shoes from the subway station. Her daughter, Tae Soo (Park Yeon-ah), taking ballet lessons, begins to build an unhealthy obsession with the pink pair. As the movie progresses, we learn a disturbing back-story behind the shoes, as well as some uneasy details about Sun Jae's own life...what is her supposedly divorced husband (Lee Eol) doing in Tae Soo's bedroom, for one?

"The Red Shoes", the sophomore film directed by Kim Yong-gyun, who had debuted with an interestingly disturbing love story "Wanee and Junah" (2001), vacillates between two positions. On the one hand, it is a fire-in-the-belly, non-PC, take-no-prisoners scream-fest, pummeling the complacent audience with its blood-curdling yet outrageously beautiful set pieces and featuring a tour de force turn by its star, Kim Hye-soo.

On the other, it is also a clunky, poorly structured horror flick with an absolutely deadening final twist (well, at least in its theatrical version). It is relatively easy to dismiss the whole enterprise as a confused mess, but to do so is to unjustly ignore its undeniable beauty and gumption. "The Red Shoes" is like broken fragments of an elaborate ornament, which, when gathered together into a semblance of the whole, make us appreciate just how stunning the original piece might have been.

The film is certainly impressive in its technical achievements. I disagree in principle with the critics who argue that a horror film does not need a coherent plot or interesting characters as long as it is a visual knockout, but there is no denying that Director Kim, DP Kim Tae-gyeong and production designers Im Hyeong-tae and Jang Bak Ha create for the film a mesmerizing Gothic-modernist look and a slightly jagged, surrealistic atmosphere.

Actually, the most interesting visual set pieces in the film are those not well integrated into its main plot; the flurries of snow that turn into pink, and then scarlet, droplets of blood; Sun Jae's horrid, but fairy-tale-like nightmare of Tae Soo's feet being sliced off; and the pro-imperialist modern dance sequence in the colonial-period flashback, culminating in the rolling down of the sunburst Imperial Flag -- gorgeous and disturbing in equal measure.

Kim Hye-soo, a somewhat controversial actress, does an excellent job of articulating the frustrations and horrors of a tough career woman, whose repressed desires are never acknowledged by the indifferent (patriarchal) society. Despite her acting prowess, however, I doubt many viewers could sympathize with Sun Jae. It is perhaps a good thing that her character does not melt into "Maternal Love Incarnated", as the protagonists do in "Dark Waters" and other horror films with similar takes on the mother-daughter relationship. But even Kim Hye-soo's gutsy, but carefully modulated performance in the end, cannot transcend the screenplay mired in the genre conventions.

The "18+" version addresses a number of glaring plot holes in the film, especially its ludicrous final twist. We do find out what happened in the end to Tae Soo (much worse than what you think), and the film now ends with an emotionally truthful downer, the close-up of a tearful, but calm Sun Jae, instead of a merely confused one used for the theatrical version.

However, the "18+" version is not a superior cut as some, no doubt, would claim. By focusing on Sun Jae's ambiguous feelings toward her husband (played with the characteristic poker-face by Lee Eol) and her daughter, this cut eliminates most of its flamboyantly beautiful set pieces, including all or parts of those I have mentioned above. This cut is much dourer and subdued as a result.

Another big mistake was to reduce the Gothic (pipe organs!) and romantic features of Lee Byung Woo's splendid score and to emphasize its minimalist (electronic noise and is that toy piano?) effects. Finally, the "18+" version cannot redress the problem with the screenplay itself, especially regarding its failure to make sense out of the supernatural elements and integrate them into its main theme, the exploration of Sun Jae's inner psychology. Incidentally, the cut's 18+ rating seems to be based on the extended, Lucio Fulci-like gore sequence, including an eyeball gouging and an excruciatingly slow amputation, all of which are totally unnecessary.

Overall, the "18+" version appears to be a more faithful adaptation of the original screenplay and actually feels rawer than the theatrical version. Its plot makes slightly more sense, but the theatrical version is much more interesting and probably has a greater impact as a horror film.

DVD Presentation:

Woo Sung DVD. 2-Disc Special Edition. Dual Layer. Region 3. Audio: Korean (DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Dolby Digital 2.0). Subtitles: Korean, English (only for the theatrical version). September 2005.

Two discs respectively contain the "18+" cut and the theatrical cut, with special features also evenly distributed between them. Woo Sung's DVD packaging is somewhat austere, with the slipcase cover showing only a rather smudged-looking photo of the shoes, instead of prominently featuring Kim Hye-soo as one would have expected.

The transfer is basically good, but the dark green/washed-up blue color scheme developed through the "bleaching" process and digital color correction somehow does not come off as well as it did for other Korean films employing similar techniques (for instance, "Crying Fist"). I don't think it is the configuration of my DVD players, since I remember being taken in by the evanescent layers of black and blue progressively receding into pitch-black darkness, when I saw it in a Seoul theater. Likewise, the deliberately out-of-focus shots and other creative uses of the 2.35: 1 frame are slightly diminished in effectiveness (There is also an excess of grains in some scenes, but I think this might have been intentional). The Dolby Digital audio mixes are all fine, thankfully not diluting the force of Lee Byung Woo's fantastic score.

English-speaking buyers should beware that the "18+" version does not feature English subtitles, a disappointment. I suppose the subtitled prints had already been prepared for international sales and such, but since most of the changes for the "18+" version do not involve extensive dialogues, adding new subs could not have been too taxing (Korean subtitles are provided for both versions: one of my players had a massive problem displaying them correctly, though). The English subs themselves are generally good, with a minimum of mistranslations or inappropriate colloquialisms. Again, "The Red Shoes" is not a dialogue-heavy film and there are few instances where translations capturing subtleties of the Korean expressions are called for. It helps in this regard, too, that the colonial-period flashback unfolds in silence for the most part.

The theatrical cut features a welcome audio commentary by Director Kim Yong-gyun, Producer Shin Chang Gil and the star Kim Hye-soo. Kim Hye-soo, who talks fast in a very attractive contralto voice, extends praise to supporting players (including an eloquent defense of the young Park Yeon-ah's technically unsophisticated, but effective performance), asking questions about the film's interesting color scheme (commenting that the pink shoes show different colors every time she saw the movie in theaters), and so on.

Kim Yong-gyun reveals that quite a few of Sun Jae's character-revealing moments were directly contributed by Kim Hye-soo (including a truly creepy scene in which she mimics her daughter's whining voice). It is an informative and cordial commentary track, definitely better than average, and showcasing Kim Hye-soo's intelligence and articulateness (she sounds like a film critic in many scenes, including one impressive discussion of "The Usual Suspects" and its editing techniques).

The "18+" cut disc contains special features: a 17-minute making-of documentary, with an extended discussion of the filming of the final sequence, which must have been hellish for Kim Hye-soo and the staff members: a 14-minute documentary on the digital coloration process; and an 8-minute piece dealing with production of publicity photos and other marketing materials. The last documentary contains (unintentionally?) funny "Candid Camera" style footages of the Seoulites reacting to the film's rather embarrassing publicity stunts (A long-haired ghost clutching pink shoes and riding the subway, etc.); a music video and trailers. The special features are about the par for a Korean Region 3 release and heavily marketing-oriented. I would have loved to know more information on the film's dance sequences, but alas, they are not examined.

"The Red Shoes" is a deeply flawed, but fascinating horror film, energetic, elegant and beautiful, but also wildly uneven and ultimately incoherent. It is mainly worth checking out for Kim Hye-soo's powerful performance as well as its technical adroitness and superior production qualities. I hope the future Region 1 release of the film retains both versions, and re-do the transfer, as denying "The Red Shoes" a chance to show off its sumptuous, and sometimes excessive visuals, is like asking a cat to catch a mouse after plucking her whiskers.

Kyu Hyun Kim is Associate Professor of Japanese and Korean History University of California, Davis.


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