Wednesday, March 14, 2007

THE RED SHOES (2005) reviewed

The extraordinary Kim Hye-soo descends into a subway tunnel to suffer a memorably macabre meltdown in Tartan Asia Extreme's THE RED SHOES.

2005, Tartan Asia Extreme, DD-5.1/DTS 5.1/DD-2.0/MA/16:9/ST/+, 103m 45s, DVD-1
This Korean horror film by sophomore writer-director Kim Yong-Gyun doesn't hit all of its marks but is well worth seeing; it's deeply unsettling rather than frightening or abusive, and it has a visual flair (courtesy of DP Kim Tae-Kyung) that at times taps into the stylized wickedness of Dario Argento's work at its zenith. Tropes from other films and filmmakers are evident at times, but there is also a kernel of great originality and promise here. The film is well-acted throughout, but outstanding are Kim Hye-soo and little Park Yeon-ah as a mother and daughter who (in scenes reminiscent of DARK WATER) take a cheap, grungy apartment after separating from the unfaithful man of the family. The mother, Sun-jae, is an optometrist who hires a young separated architect (Kim Sung-su) to design her new offices; she is also a shoe collector who finds an abandoned pair of elegant violet pink (not red) heels on the subway, which she takes home with her. The shoes have an overpowering, irresistible effect on Sun-jae, her daughter Tae-soo , and her sister, all of whom come to hysterical blows in the effort to hold onto them. Sun-jae recognizes the shoes' destructive influence and makes an effort to get rid of them, but they always come back into the possession of her increasingly strange daughter, who claims visitations from her father -- who has not been informed of their whereabouts.
Writer-director Kim has said that his film is about "the extremity of a woman's desire for her womanhood." Part of the shoes' allure is certainly narcissistic and tied to female fantasies of glamor; however, the film's story also encompasses aspects of the original Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name, the Powell and Pressburger classic, the 1990 Tobe Hooper TV movie I'M DANGEROUS TONIGHT (based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich), as well as David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS FIRE WALK WITH ME (there is even a filthy homeless woman who looks like a deliberate facsimile of the one played by Lynch himself in the trailer park prelude of that film) and some perceptual surprises worthy of A TALE OF TWO SISTERS. Kim makes the notion of the shoes more personal and nationalistic by weaving into this material references to the insecurities attached to bare feet and the Eastern tradition of leaving one's shoes at the door.
After a fairly gripping first hour, the film loses some of its hold with a disappointing, belabored "logical explanation" of its supernatural events, which -- in an appropriate but peculiar swipe from Kieslowski's RED -- involves a woman appearing on billboard advertisements all over town. Despite the choppy navigation of its middle, THE RED SHOES is worth seeking out for its picturesque and poetical set-pieces, its adventurous toying with audience (and protagonist) perceptions, and, most of all, for a magnificent climactic meltdown by Kim Hye-soo, who conveys the most palpable sense of fear and dread I've seen onscreen since Angelica Lee in THE EYE [Gin gwai, 2002]. Frankly, Ms. Kim commands one's attention on an altogether more complex level, being sexier and scarier and disciplined enough to stylize a performance without ever losing touch with its realism. There's no erotic content to speak of, but one of the most admirable things about the film is its ability to pull those punches in a way that baits and intrigues rather than disappoints. Lee Byung-woo's minimalist electronic score also warrants praise and special recognition for sounding original, supportive of the action and atmosphere, and musically interesting all at the same time.
Tartan's disc presents the film in a very nice anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, but especially pleasing are the five-channel audio tracks which sport unusual and sometimes ticklish attention to detail. The extras include a Making-of featurette interviewing the director and principal actors (17m 3s), a "Look at the Visual Effects" (13m 43s), a theatrical trailer that references Hans Christian Andersen and the Bible (2m 12s), and a subtitled audio commentary by the director and cinematographer, which I have not yet sampled.

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