A neo-Gothic riff on the Hans Christian Andersen tale (and classic Michael Powell movie), “The Red Shoes” is an above-average slice of Korean horror with strong ancillary potential in Western markets. Already sold to several territories in Asia and Europe, yarn about a pair of women’s shoes whose wearers end up with their feet chopped off has proved a moderate performer locally, with some 700,000 admissions in its first two weeks since June 30 release. Late-night fest slots also look in the cards, and fantasy events are a given.
Sophomore outing by Kim Yong-gyun is totally different from his graceful romancer “Wanee & Junah” (2001), which took an almost mystical approach to its central relationship. There’s also an escalating violence to the main mother-daughter relationship in “Shoes” that may surprise many Westerners.
Creepy pre-title sequence, set in Seoul’s subway, sets the mood, with a schoolgirl finding the title heels on a platform. When another girl steals them off her by force, latter is chased through the subway and ends up dead and, well, footless.
Pic’s semi-grungy look, all wintry lighting and desaturated colors, continues into the main story, centered on an optometrist, Seon-jae (Kim Hye-su), who walks out on her philandering hubby and sets up home with her 6-year-old daughter, Tae-su (Park Yeon-ah). It’s already clear, from Kim’s stressed perf, that Seon-jae is one sandwich short of a picnic — and the pair’s move into a spooky, grimy apartment, full of dodgy electricals and grimy porcelain, makes little sense rationally. But in genre terms it works fine, with mobile camerawork maintaining tension and the atmospheric art direction conveying a slightly twisted, fairy tale flavor.
Finding the aforesaid shoes in a subway carriage one day, Seon-jae, whose hobby is collecting exotic heels, takes them home. However, when she wears them, she starts to “see” the story — set in 1944, Japanese-occupied Korea — of a beautiful ballet dancer and her jealous female rival in which the same shoes figured.
Meanwhile, tiny Tae-su, who attends ballet school, also covets the shoes, especially as the tyke finds she can dance much better when wearing them. Mother and daughter start to spat, especially when mom brings home an interior designer (Kim Seong-su) who’s working on her new office. Meanwhile, the shoes lead to more grisly deaths by their wearers, including Seon-jae’s tubby friend, Mi-heui (Go Su-heui), who steals them one night.
Though it’s set in present-day Seoul, film creates a whole self-contained world of its own, using a small cast, often deserted locations and a script that keeps the focus tight on the action, shocks and mother-daughter-shoes triangle. Said heels are actually a sensual, velvety pink rather than bright red, which makes a convenient contrast to the (literally) gallons of blood unleashed in the special effects.
Kim Hye-su (“Kick the Moon,” “Three: Memories”) makes a more mature change from the usual distaff screamers in Korean horrors, and ankle-biter Park is especially effective when showing her dark side. Tech package is well-honed on all levels, and end crawl contains a neat joke.