Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Movies: These shoes are just killin' me.

Korean director Yong gyun-Kim's 2005 The Red Shoes, a spookshow about a cursed pair of pinkish-red high-heels, is notable in part for its curious influences. Although the flick traffics in images and plot points familiar to Western audiences from the Ring-led J-horror invasion – ghost girls with long black hair in their faces, puzzle-like curses, and so on – it draws inspiration from two unlikely sources: Hans Christian Andersen and the 1948 British melodrama The Red Shoes.

The first unlikely source is Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale of The Red Shoes. Andersen actually snags a posthumous co-writing credit. Bowdlerized versions of this story have a young woman finding a magical pair of red shoes. She slips them on and they make her the best dancer in the town. As befits the psychological needs of our modern validation-desperate whelp, the girl comes to learn that it was her own desire and, perhaps, her willingness to dare to greatness (in a way that wouldn't alienate others or take undue advantage of the varying skill levels of the other dancers, natch) that made her such a good dancer. Optimally, we also learn that sharing is caring, we're all special, and meat and sugar are the biochemical basis of homophobia. Little of this, of course, has much to do with Andersen's original fairy tale. As he penned it, the girl, Karen, puts on red shoes to go to church. This is a no-no – black shoes for church, people – that Karen will be punished for to an absurd extent. The shoes start to dance and Karen can't take them off. She dances all day and night, cursed by neighbors and even angels, until she finds a kind village executioner who will chop off her feet. The dancing shoes, feet still in them, dance off into the sunset and Karen repents the sin of wearing inappropriate church clothes.

Read that to the wee ones just before beddy-bye.

The second, un-credited source, is Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger classic The Red Shoes. Itself supposedly an adaptation of Andersen's tale, this well-loved flick currently rests in the number 8 position on the British Film Institute's irregular ranking of their domestic product. The film tells the story of a young ballet artist, Vicky Page, trapped between the affections of a young composer, Julian, and her brutally forceful director, Boris. Vicky quickly rises to fame in the ballet world, but Boris is insanely jealous of Julian and demands that Vicky choose between her lover and dancing. Vicky, surprisingly, chooses to stay with Julian and leaves the troop. But married life does not suit Vicky, who was meant to be on the stage. Boris bullies and seduces her to run away from her husband and perform again. Julian finds out Vicky's ditched and shows up at her dressing room with an ultimatum: the ballet or our marriage. This time, Vicky chooses a third option and commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. With her last breath, she tells Julian to remove her red shoes.

Yong gyun-Kim's horror version reintroduces the element of magical footwear, but borrows liberally from the imagery of Powell's justly worshipped film. Kim's film opens with a warm-up scare on a nearly empty subway platform. A young girl, exasperatedly waiting for a late friend, spies a pair of empty, red shoes near the edge of the platform. She picks up the shoes and puts them on. Suddenly, her friend appears and claims the shoes as her own. They argue and wrestle and, finally, her friend snatches the shoes and walks off. The friend puts on the shoes and begins making her way to the station exit. Before she can reach it, however, she's halted by a ghost who takes back the shoes, destroying the young girl's feet, and leaves her to bleed to death through the raw stumps on the end of her legs. Ouch.

Once the wake up bit of nasty business is done, the pacing of The Red Shoes slows considerably. We follow the sad sack life of Sun-jae, a vision therapist and avid shoe collector, is trapped in domestic hell. Her husband in a callous jerk who is bagging exo-marital trim on the side and their only daughter, Tae-su, make no bones out of liking her father more than her mother. Sun-jae's crappy life takes a drastic turn when, having lost track of her daughter somewhere in the city, she runs home to see if the little one has shown up there. Happily, Tae-su did. Unfortunately, Sun-jae got there first and caught her hubby making the beast with two backs – one of which was definitely not hers.

Sun-jae and Tae-su move to the downmarket section of town, exchanging the sterile enormity of their old home for an apartment so rundown grungy that it appears to have been entirely washed in a coating of chewing tobacco spit. Sun-jae tries to start up a new eye clinic, falling in with a young, carefree architect who will be the flick's love interest. And - despite living in an apartment that is lit like a torture chamber and decorated in shades of sickly green, rust red, and inky black – things are kinda looking up.

Enter the shoes!

One night, riding the subway, Sunny J sees the shoes on the train. Being a shoe junkie, she takes the eponymous footwear home. Trouble begins immediately. Sunny J and her daughter immediately begin fighting, sometimes quite physically, over the shoes. Strangers begin reacting strangely to her, either fleeing her or attacking her and demanding the shoes. Her only friend steals the shoes, only to die in a nasty "accident" that ends with the removal of her feet. And, like the cat of camp song fame, the shoes just keep coming back. Again and again, the cursed clogs appear inexplicably in her daughter's clutches.

In an effort to escape the shoes' baleful influence, Sun-jae and her beau investigate the history of the house and shoes, linking the curse to a love triangle gone bad between a choreographer and two ballet dancers that ended in all manner of murder and supernatural carnage during Korea's era as a vassal state to Japan (1910 to 1945). But, in the course the investigation, Sun-jae's boytoy discovers that she's been pulling a snow job: Not only did she never divorce her husband, but the hubby has weirdly vanished from the scene. What up with that?

Red Shoes is an interesting, but uneven contribution to the growing body of Asian ghost stories available in the West. Filmmaker Yong gyun-Kim does a lot right. The film is a deft combination of Western and Eastern ghost story tropes. There's plenty of The Ring on display (the way that the style of a handful of manga artists became something akin multinational regional "official" style, the once cheapo subgenre of J-horror is becoming not only Japan's nation language of film horror, but the dominant mode of horror cinema for much of Asia). The long-haired ghosts, the flickering florescent light fixtures, the jump scares, the game-like curse rules, the soft and deep color palates, and a "gotcha" denouement are here for anybody who is an aficionado of the subgenre. But, to the betterment of the film experience, Yong gyun-Kim mixes in a wealth of extra-Asian influences and references. The ballet theme, the train, and the titular red shoes themselves, we've covered. Alert viewers will also catch nods to non-J-horror inspirations as disparate as Nightmare on Elm Street and American Werewolf in London. The narrative structure more resembles The Exorcist and Poltergeist than the countdown structure or repetitious drumming pattern of J-horror classics like The Ring, The Grudge, and Pulse. Not that the Western spookshow hooks are necessary superior. Instead, it simply lets a little fresh air into a formulaic approach the too easily becomes a straight jacket for filmmakers.

The negatives, however, aren't easy to overlook. The visual style is pretty derivative. This looks like a dozen other well-made but not particularly inspired J-horror spawned flicks. The acting is quite uneven, a feature that sticks out all the more due to the fact that the film's protagonist, the lovely Hye-su Kim, is really great at half her role. Though there are dozens of actors who look better slightly abused, Kim is one of the few actresses who is most captivating when she looks tired, abused, and trapped. Sitting on a subway train, half dead, after a long day's work, Kim touches some deep well of sympathy. Unfortunately, the flick also asks her to do a lot of somewhat absurd crap and that doesn't work out so well. Finally, and perhaps worst, is the "gotcha" ending that actually starts out promisingly but devolves into a phantasmagoric finale that is less otherworldly than lazy.

I enjoyed The Red Shoes. It's leisurely pacing drew me in and the domestic strife it depicted had the sharp edge of the real that good drama captures. The best ghost stories are, ultimately, about human relationships. Not only the victims, but the relationships that continue to bind the restless dead to this world. At its best, The Red Shoes gets that. But, the film loses its way near the end, ultimately failing to deliver on its early promise. Potential viewers should consider themselves forewarned.


Anonymous said...

My dad used to tell us a magic shoes story that he supposedly made up, it was a really happy dancey story. Now I realize it was his adaption of the Anderson version! I wonder if anyone ever told that story to their kids.
Anyway, CrMV, I was tagged to do a meme, and decided to tag you, even though I have never commented here before and you don't know me.
You can read about it here http://www.myguitarbuddies.com/7-facts-about-myself-116.html
and take part or not - as you wish :-)

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

I find this fascination of South Korean and Japanese artists with European fairy tales very interesting - works usually out much better than Western takes on Asian cultures if you ask me.

Now to find a nice South Korean person who could explain the why and how come of that interest (some words about SK and European Classical music would also be nice)...