Although ostensibly inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, “The Red Shoes” is clearly yet another entry in the recent wave of South Korean horror films based around cursed objects and long haired female ghosts. In fact, it is an almost archetypal example of this depressingly overpopulated subgenre, working through a checklist of its cliché, motifs and themes, to the point where the viewer could be forgiven for forgetting which film they were actually watching.
Although eminently predictable, and without a single frame of originality, “The Red Shoes” is at least not dull, and unlike other recent examples of the type, such as “The Wig”, it grounds itself firmly within the horror genre, with plenty of blood and cheap scares for genre fans. Reasonably well made and with an effective gothic atmosphere, “The Red Shoes” offers those willing to retread familiar ground a slice of undemanding entertainment which, in all fairness, succeeds in its modest ambitions and rises above the soul sucking indolence of the vast majority of its contemporaries.
Set in Seoul, the film follows Sun Jae (Kim Hye Soo, also in “Three: Memories”) who, after catching her husband with another woman, moves into a decrepit old apartment building along with her young daughter, Tae Soo. Struggling to settle into this new life, Sun Jae comes across a strange pair of red shoes whilst on the subway, and decides to take them home. Unfortunately, the shoes turn out to be cursed, and exerts a sinister power over all those who come into contact with them, leading to expected deaths and disaster. Eventually, with Tae Soo’s life hanging in the balance, Sun Jae and new interior designer boyfriend Cheol (Kim Sung Soo) desperately try to unravel the mystery of the shoes before it’s too late.
The plot is instantly recognisable, even to viewers with only a passing acquaintance with modern Asian horror, and “The Red Shoes” lifts elements from a variety of other films, most obviously “Dark Water” and fellow South Korean screamer “Phone”. The narrative holds no surprises whatsoever, clearly telegraphing every development and would-be twist, from the heroine’s discovery of the shoes, through her initial disbelief and confusion, to the inevitable climax, complete with the regulatory wide eyed hysteria and self defeating lack of logic.
To his credit, writer/director Kim Yong Gyun does at least make an effort to flesh out the characters somewhat, and manages to balance quite skilfully the early domestic scenes with the growing supernatural influences. The plot is well paced, and moves along gracefully if not fast, though as with many other films of its kind, the investigative element is initiated too late, relying wholly on contrivance, with ridiculous new characters being introduced solely for the purpose of exposition.
The film’s greatest asset is the fact that the director never loses sight that “The Red Shoes” is indeed a horror film, and includes a fair bit of action to keep things interesting. Initially, this revolves around a series of macabre dreams and ghostly visions, some of which are genuinely startling, containing some fairly clever symbolism as well as literally gallons of blood. There are a handful of creative deaths scattered throughout the film, mostly involving the chopping off of legs, which adds an amusing, grotesque twist and puts the viewer in a far more forgiving mood.
There is an effort to imbue the shoes themselves with an interesting malevolence, wisely relying not upon their own animation, but their influence over the characters, twisting their passions and bringing out their darker sides. This is done quite effectively, especially in terms of the relationship between Sun Jae and her daughter, which degenerates into some fairly disturbing domestic violence.
The film is visually quite rich, and the director makes considerable effort to dress up the proceedings with a shadowy gothic flair, attempting to evoke the feeling of a modern fairy tale. This is done quite successfully, with good use of subdued light and a tendency to blur the surroundings and horizon, giving a real feeling of isolation, as if the film takes place in an unreal world of its own. As well as the dream sequences, there are a number of surreal touches, most notably a scene where it snows blood, which helps to generate an unsettling atmosphere which somehow manages to compliment the film’s basic lack of sense.
Of course, it is questionable whether or not such stylistics are enough to compensate for the film’s overriding lack of originality, and no matter how hard the director tries, “The Red Shoes” remains little more than the latest in a long line of similar films, albeit better than most. Although well made, entertaining and genuinely creepy in places, it struggles to achieve any kind of significance or to shake off the immediate reaction that this has all been seen before.
Yong-gyun Kim (director) / Yong-gyun Kim (screenplay)
CAST: Hye-su Kim …. Sun-jae
Seong-su Kim …. In-cheol
Yeon-ah Park …. Tae-su