Monday, January 22, 2007

"The Red Shoes" (Kim Yong-Gyun, 2005) from efilmcritic.com

“The Red Shoes” (Bundongsin) is one of the more difficult horror films from South Korea. It’s helped a little by being based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, but only if you know the original story.

(A young girl named Karen, who is vain and shallow, ignores the people who love her so that she may go dancing in her new red shoes. But once she begins to dance, she can’t stop. Finally, arriving at the home of a wood cutter, she begs the man to cut off her feet, which he does. The shoes, feet still in them, continue to dance. The man carves a pair of wooden feet for Karen, who then becomes so ecstatic in her new-found Christian faith, she dies of a joyfully broken heart and goes to Heaven, where no one questions her about her bewitched red shoes. In Denmark, this is a story for children. You know, like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is in America.)

In the film, written by Ma Sang-Ryeol and director Kim Yong-Gyun, a young, married optometrist named Sun-jae (Kim Hye-soo) finds a pair of red shoes abandoned on a subway platform. We’ve seen that the shoes cast a spell of possessiveness on any woman who finds them so we’re already mentally urging this pretty young wife and mother to leave them alone. She doesn’t.

When she takes them home, the shoes cast their spell on Sun-jae’s daughter (who appears to be eight-ish) Tae-soo (Park Yeon-ah). The child takes the shoes, insisting that they are now hers. The father thinks the resulting argument is over-blown and the next time Tae-soo goes to her ballet class, he insists that Sun-jae take the shoes to her. On her return home, Sun-jae finds her husband canoodling with another woman, and she and Tae-soo move into an apartment of their own.

The ownership of the shoes remains a sticking point between mother and daughter, and their relationship becomes even more incendiary when Sun-jae begins dating the interior designer, In-cheol (Kim Seong-soo), she’s hired to give her clinic a do-over. Tae-soo naturally enough sees him as a weak makeshift father figure.

None of this is hard to understand, but the contemporary story is frequently interrupted by moments of passion, violence, and ballet from the past, flashes that seem to have no connection to the central story. We’ve become accustomed to non-linear narratives, but we can usually see pretty quickly what’s going on and can connect the inserted material to the main story.

In “Bundongsin,” it takes about an hour for Sun-jae and In-cheol to figure out that something terribly wrong is going on here. The film begins to look like “Ringu” as we follow their investigation. We’ve known all along that the shoes are cursed, and when they find it out, and learn why, we’re able to put all the storylines together and form one cohesive plot. Characters and viewers arrive at the film’s moral together: “no emotion is more fatal than an obsessed love.”

The great pleasure of the Asian horror films imported to America by Tartan Films USA “Asia Extreme” line and other video distributors is that they were made for adults. The protagonists are aged beyond the first bloom of youth and are faced with personal problems more mature than where to spend Spring Break so you won’t run the risk of being ripped apart by some psycho hitchhiker. Yes, the pacing of these films is slower than is the norm in western horror movies, but even that indicates a more mature approach to the material. We expect psycho violence to happen in the blink of an eye, but curses and spectral vengeance take longer to develop.

“Bundongsin” contains a couple of unfortunately derivative elements—the single mom and her boyfriend rushing to understand the nature of the danger before a child is harmed comes from “Ringu,” just as a scene wherein mother and daughter go hunting for an apartment looks too much as if it were lifted from “Dark Water”—but the picture does slip in a few surprises and is weighted by the same moral seriousness that keeps the original fairy tale from being for children only.

“The Red Shoes” requires more patience than do most contemporary horror movies, but waiting for the payoff is made tolerable by two good performances from the lead actresses. Little Park Yeon-ah delivers the best performance from a child in one of these pictures since Eun Seo-woo in “Phone.”

Try on “The Red Shoes.” You won’t stop dancing.

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