A disorientating descent into emotional purgatory, familial deterioration, and fragmented reality, Red Shoes, the newest supernatural thriller from Asia Extreme, is the year's most original (and shocking) horror film. A ghost story within a mystery within another ghost story, the acrobatics of a complex, emotionally challenging plot are supported by scenes of such chilling style that their shocks linger long after the picture has ended. The film may end, but its nightmares stay with you. Favoring a unique blend of atmospheric tension and character-motivated suspense with sparsely used moments of graphic violence, the wetter shocks, when they come, feel like a blow to the head. This dual-layered approach towards terror is mirrored in the complexity of the story, which weaves themes of deceit, madness, and obsession with a particularly malevolent curs. Minds are as haunted by misdeeds as vengeful wraiths in this bold, stylistically impressive fear-feast, and the depths which its perfectly realized characters go for love, ownership, and revenge are as easily as disturbing as the specters.

A loose re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen's fable of a woman whose magical 'red shoes' forced her to dance until she died, the plot of this inspired and sensitively told attack against timidity centers around Sun Jae and her daughter, who struggle to forge a new life for themselves after Sun Jae catches her husband cheating on her. Moving into a decrepit apartment building, eerily evocative of the film's themes of shadowy deceit and mental/emotional deterioration, Sun Jae (an emotionally engaging character whose performance helps anchor the supernatural elements of the script into the territory of believability) discovers a pair of high-heeled red shoes on the sidewalk (well, actually a shade of pink), which she picks up and develops an obsessive lust for. While this is a bit of a stretch in believability, furthering the plot but sacrificing something of believability (I don't know of many women so desperate for material possessions that they grub shoes from the street!), remembering that the source for this story is a folktale whose plots were often broad and rooted in the principle simplicity of rustic people makes it easier to accept. Further, there is a supernatural power of seduction in the shoes themselves which attract the 'right' kind of people. Examining illicit affairs, child abuse, fragmented relationships, and the power of the unforgiving past to destroy the future, perhaps the primary focus of the tale is the strained yet tender relationship between mother and daughter, paralleled by the supernatural mysteries that, in part, symbolize the excruciating anxieties of everyday stress. As the shoes become an object of fetishistic desire for Sun Jae's daughter and friends, and Sun Jae herself instigates a sexual relationship with an interior designer, hints of a spectral tragedy slowly unfold, weaving a hypnotic spell. Just as we think we know where the story is going, and have figured out the darkly beautiful history behind a truly disconcerting haunting, we're captivated by still darker revelations . . .

A fresh, daring interpretation of ancient desires and anxieties, fears of the unknown are coupled seamlessly with apprehensions of everyday domesticity. In this approach the director engages the audience on both a cultural and intimately personal level, using affairs of the heart to spin his vivid dark dream of possession and a past whose hatred is only surpassed by the hidden daggers of a woman betrayed. So strong is the cultural resonance of this modern fear fable, and so beautifully captured are its operatic images of the tragic macabre, that even its most fantastical elements are wholly believable. Seen through the passion-heated eyes of an unstable woman, the day-lit world of reason and expectation is easily subverted immediately. Intruding on the shadowy corners of reality, the denizens of the demonic otherworld are lent depth and undeniable effect because the director's attention to detail, setting, and distorted angles allows us to view the film through the easily swayed eyes of a child. As effectively gruesome and upsetting as the explosions of violence are, the viscera is organic to the story, not exploitative, and even the worst physical carnage pales to the terrifying assaults against reality and sanity which this movie specializes in.

Unnerving by implication, Red Shoes summons terror through our emotional attachment to characters we both like and fear for. Setting the primal archetypal essence of folklore within the decidedly deadly, emotionally destructive world of the everyday, Red Shoes is a ghost story of the mind, not a simple attack against flesh. Far more than mortal life is at stake in this thrilling deconstruction of the middle class, single parenting, and the fragile, often deadly ambiguity of relationships. Agonized spirits, revenge, sense of self, and the terrifying consequences of love are tested by an occult force kept primarily in the shadows of frame and consciousness. We fear nothing more than the unknown, and the filmmakers use this to fine funeral effect.

Obsession and pain come together in this pulse-quickening myth, and while certain surface elements of the plot (daughter and child move to apartment away from husband) and setting will undoubtedly seem familiar to viewers, resembling Dark Water, such a knee-jerk comparison is misleading, for Red Shoes is a substantially different movie in not only its choice of themes and plot but in its impressive interweaving of crimes, panic and pathos. While owing something of a debt to the style and feel of various Asian cinematic terrors, this highly innovative creeper -- both a high minded drama of human suffering and a no-nonsense horror show dedicated to terror and titillation -- easily establishes its own identity. One only hopes that the next wave of filmmakers attempt to imitate the storytelling maturity and sensuously disturbing atmosphere so apparent here.

A dark and fatalistic faerie tale for adults, Red Shoes discovers the primal terror lurking beneath (and within) the everyday. Finding the source for supernatural dread in our homes -- the very last place we like to think of it -- the film unearths nightmares both mystical and psychologically authentic in the very heart of any society -- the family unit. Playing off our fears not only of the unseen and the supernatural, the director spends equal effort unnerving us with intimately recognizable apprehensions, such as spousal neglect, urban isolation, and the threat of madness in a world that is itself more than a little mad. Combining the pleasures of the occult with profoundly disturbing glimpses of everyday stress, Red Shoes will scare the hell out of you!

Review by William P Simmons

Released by Tartan Asia Extreme USA
Region 1 NTSC
Not Rated
Extras : see main review