The Red Shoes (2005)

[24 October 2006]

By Robert R. Calder

Although it shares the same title, this Korean film with English or Spanish subtitles is a very long way from Powell and Pressburger’s brilliant 1948 film, The Red Shoes.  For one thing, it lacks that masterpiece’s coherence—the restraint which differentiates it from the somewhat superior shocker this newer film becomes—for all its merits in acting, scene-setting, lighting photography, and indeed, at times, subtlety (though there are a couple of over-the-top hoots).

There’s a kind of overture: a young girl, otherwise preoccupied on the platform of a massive marble-effect subterranean rail station (the metro of a Fritz Lang Metropolis), finds a pair of shoes. On the print I saw, whose coloration I much liked, the shoes were rather deep pink than red, but anyway the girl tries them on. At this point, another girl appears and, after demonstrating that she had seen the shoes first, makes off with them. Soon, however, she has no more immediate use for any shoes.

A slightly older, but still young lady, is the main protagonist of the body of the film: Sun Jae, married, with a very young daughter, to not the nicest husband a lady would ever want to hear tell her she couldn’t cook. The daughter, Tae-Soo, attends a dance class. Her father tells Sun Jae the girl should be encouraged to go there unescorted, and on the trial trip, with Sun Jae tailing little Tae Soo (too young to go to dance classes on her own), a separate pair of red shoes is introduced as a bum steer for viewers. It’s really quite clever, a near accident, Sun Jae eventually losing sight of her daughter and rushing on and into the class—to find that, despite the little girl’s fondness for dancing, Tae Soo has bunked off. Worried, Sun Jae returns home. 

In her absence, the husband has come home, but by no means alone. Outside their door, Sun Jae sees another pair of shoes in the hall, and their lady owner is upstairs trying on pairs from the collection Sun Jae has accumulated over the years. Other than this or that pair of shoes, that lady isn’t wearing anything else at the time, as might be expected, given the reason for her visit. Some readers might be relieved, others disappointed, that while The Red Shoes does have some echoes of Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now—especially when Sun Jae walks towards a small red-coated figure with its back to her—there is nothing equivalent here to that earlier film’s athleticism, nobility, et cetera, as between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie.
Later in the film the unwelcome lady visitor reappears alone, in a red dress, and very upset. By then, Sun Jae has moved with little Tae Soo into a shabby flat in a classic glass-walled high-rise. The basement is inhabited by a bag-lady who suffers from curvature of the spine.

Because of a failure of a ceiling strip-light, and an accident when replacing it, Sun Jae has had to visit her best friend, a lady eye-doctor. Eyes are another theme of the film. Sun Jae plans to open her own eye clinic, and by the time of her husband’s sometime girlfriend’s intrusion into her home, she has met the decorator / renovator of the premises, which is to become her own eye clinic. She has also found, on a subway train, presumably the same pink shoes which did their usurper no good in the film’s short overture. Tae Soo keeps trying to steal these shoes from her mother, who is wearing them just before things get serious between her and the decorator (when she takes the shoes and presumably more items from her mother).  Sun Jae doesn’t wear them on the next date with her new love interest, because Tae Soo has hidden them.

When Sun Jae discovers Tae Soo hid the shoes they argue.  The eye doctor calls and finds mother and daughter wrestling on the floor. This time, they eye doctor manages to make off with the shoes.  Later on, not much later on, she tells Sun Jae over her mobile phone that wearing them makes her feel so young. There she is, on a walk through the deserted space under a flyover, gazing at a wedding dress in a shop window; and suddenly she has no more need for shoes, as they say, ever.

Sun Jae is alarmed about the death of her friend, identifying what was left of the doctor after her hammy demise, and is even more alarmed when it seems her daughter’s life might be in danger. The shoes of mysterious provenance have a history, and perhaps an explanation. With the steadfast support of the man who has been painting murals of eyes on walls of the planned eye-clinic’s gradually smartening premises, she does her detective bit. Research reveals the significance of the bag-lady-looking hunchback woman in the basement, a witness to events relatable to manifestations or hallucinations within the shabby flat after the shoes arrived. This is a ghost story involving the shoes, dancers and the Japanese occupation of Korea decades before.

Before the ghost story turns out to be yet another episode in the story of the pink shoes, there is some serious self-indulgence in camera-work and special effects, such as the outrageous Korean rope trick which brings Roeg’s film to mind.  This and other fantastic scenes seem a long way from the scene of Sun Jae running down a suburban street carrying her daughter’s favourite red shoes.

There is a shot of a city like Philadelphia on speeded up film, traffic beetling across, and towers, well, towering. There is also the Soviet-style Metropolis metro, the marble underground railway, the endless tunnel of the way in and the way out, and, in the version I saw, an atmospherically washed-out colour, the photography not to be faulted unless maybe for some failure to conceal art. I like the impression of things happening somewhere on the unpopulous edge of a teeming modern city, or a skyscraper with nobody to be seen in it except the occasional protagonist, or ghost, or shower of blood from the ceiling, or set of glass shelving accommodating shoes.

I’ve nothing against films which are almost all plot, and complex plot at that, except in such cases as the present one’s rather numbing accumulation. Some very clever people put this film together. It would be nice to have the time to work out an account of the plot, of the cog on the huge wheel coming round again, and various other analogies from the works of a complex chronometer. Such an endeavour would not really serve the work of reviewing, since this is also a film which depends very greatly on suspense. You can watch and wonder, and so on, as long as you don’t know the whole story, or complex of stories.

Quite apart from any folktale motif of the red shoes, or need for that reference, this is a ghost story with a tale of love and jealousy behind it, and a film noir madness suggesting that whoever put all this together was quite ingenious.  If you like puzzles and nasty surprises, you may like this film a lot. But here I am, looking for a Powell and Pressburger sort of significance in this virtuoso, baroque, gothic exercise.

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