Well, let’s get this straight for starters. The shoes are pink. That’s a flaw right there and up front. Could the makers of this film not locate a pair of red shoes? Were they in some way colour blind? Or did the title ‘The Pink Shoes’ just not carry the same the same weight?
Obviously this movie lifts from the Hans Christian Anderson tale, loosely adapted in 1948 into a ballet-related film that still gets the occasional late night showing. Anderson’s tale told of a young woman whose prideful obsession with her fine red shoes leads her to, in a sense, forsake God. As a result her shoes become fastened to her feet and she is forced to dance, dance, dance. And not in a cool Boogie Wonderland kind of way, but so much so that, in despair, she begs the executioner to cut off her feet.
Those children’s fairy tales eh?
This Korean film carries over some of those elements of the original film and story. Several of those who wear the red/pink shoes have their feet sheared off above the ankles, for instance, and the ballet element emphasised in the original film is maintained here, in some quite, quite fine ballet dancing, including one elongated moment in the latter half.
Other than that, The Red Shoes operates pretty much as your bog standard Asian horror film. Which is such a shame. There was a time, not all that long ago, when Asian horror seemed original – intent on unsettling the viewer with visions of the Other. Vengeful, long haired, white faced ghosts that permeated the modern world through videos, phones, tvs, security cameras. A wild merging of old beliefs in the ever present spirit world with the current world’s consumerist obsessions.
How good were those early films, that managed to re-connect with fear of things lurking behind us, under the bed, and in the shadows? Those films were never easily resolved and relied on atmospherics rather than daft amounts of gore, cheesy effects and atrocious death metal music. And no one wore a long coat or went to rubbish Goth night clubs.
Unfortunately what was once refreshing and unique is now parodied in the Scary Movie franchise. So, sure there are some nice little moments in The Red Shoes – it is certainly beautifully shot – but the film also over relies on Asian horror stock in trades. Long shots down tenement corridors with white-smocked girls with long black hair covering their faces abound. We all know the drill.
Of course the film meditates – as did the story and original film – on the nature of greed, pride, and obsession. But not with any great insight, although some of the scenes of domestic mother/daughter violence – both are cruelly obsessed with the shoes – are quite horrible and hint at a subtext that could have been pursued more.
There is not much to the plot either. The mother, Sun-jae, played with effective twitchiness by Kim Hye Soo, leaves her oppressive husband after finding him cheating on her. She takes their daughter and rents a run down apartment (hello Dark Water), which she does up a treat, natch. One evening, on the train, she spies a pair of spanky pink shoes and takes them home. We happily bloodthirsty types have already spotted these shoes in an earlier scene, and we know what they are capable of. Bring it on!!!
And so, of course, merry havoc ensues. Her daughter, Tae-soo – who is learning ballet – also becomes enamoured of the shoes and both mother and daughter start seeing ghosts and having visions of the shoes’ violent past with a vicious prima ballerina. Meanwhile the mother tries to get her eye surgery business going and starts to build a relationship with interior designer In-chul.
Which is pretty much all there is to the movie. It’s a plot that would seem to make some sense until the last quarter of the film when the whole thing unravels, presumably trying to inject a kind of Tale of Two Sisters twistiness but unfortunately the twists make very little sense.
The cinematography is often startling though – the blood red snowflakes, the ballet scenes – and some of the sets are curious and lovely. Sun-jae’s apartment with its glass shrine to shoes or the gradual building of the eye surgery which In-chul constantly decorates with lurid and starkly scary paintings of eyes and faces.
Despite the endless wasted opportunities for pursuing something textually interesting, and the over reliance on Asian horror clichés, The Red Shoes is effective enough as a horror film, and has a solid visual style that lifts it a little above the recent crop of Asian horror. Now, excuse me while I strut my stuff to ‘Staying Alive’ in my own red (suede) shoes …