The Red Shoes (분홍신, Kim Yong-gyun, 2005)

the-red-shoesWalk a mile in a man’s shoes, they say, if you really want to understand him. If Kim Yong-gyun’s The Red Shoes (분홍신, Bunhongsin, 2005) is anything to go by, you’d better make sure you ask first and return them to their rightful owner afterwards without fear or covetousness. Loosely based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale this Korean take replaces dancing with murder and also mixes in elements from other popular Asian horror movies of the day, most notably Dark Water in its dank and supernaturally tinged dingy apartment setting.

Late one night at a deserted train station in Seoul, a high school girl complains that she’s been waiting ages for her friend to arrive before noticing a pair of hot pink high heels resting incongruously on the platform’s edge. Strangely drawn to them, the girl puts the shoes on only for her friend to turn up and immediately become infatuated with the unexpected footwear herself, suddenly exclaiming that she saw them first. The two fight as the first girl is almost pushed onto the tracks by her friend and all over a random pair of actually quite ugly funny coloured shoes. The eventual winner will come to regret their victory as that night in an otherwise empty train station a teenage girl will loose her footing to a pair of high heels which slowly fill with blood and then disappear leaving only a pair of severed legs behind them.

After this grim opening, we meet another little girl who has definite opinions about her footwear in the form of little Tae-soo who wanted to wear her red shoes to ballet but mum Sun-jae (Kim Hye-soo) says no and they’re already late. Letting Tae-soo learn independence by telling her to make her own way but surreptitiously following her backfires when Tae-soo somehow evades the net leading Sun-jae to head home earlier than expected and discover her husband pleasuring another woman who is also wearing a pair of Sun-jae’s favourite shoes, just to add insult to injury. Next thing you know Sun-jae and Tae-soo have moved into a horrible (but presumably cheap) apartment while they wait for Sun-jae’s new optometrist’s clinic to be finished. It’s all kind of OK, until Sun-jae notices a pair of hot pink high heels all alone on the subway and in obvious need of adoption by a pair of loving feet…

Anyone with a even a passing knowledge of the genre will have figured out the central twist well ahead of time though, strangely, it seems almost irrelevant. The shoes are cursed, but they’re cursed with jealous desire as they both contain the entirety of a scorned woman’s rage and humiliation, and a lingering want for that which has been lost. Spreading like a virus, the shoes pick a host and then target those whom it infects with the need to posses them. This tension manifests itself in odd ways as mother and daughter become rivals in the tug of war over who the rightful owner of the shoes should be. A precocious child, Tae-soo has soon tried on her mother’s new shoes and there after progressed to makeup and pretty dresses. Her mother, rather than using authority or reason to regain her lost treasure, fights with her daughter like a child eventually resorting to violence but with all the force of adulthood. The shoes corrupt even this most innocent and essential of relationships as Sun-jae continues to struggle with maternity as Tae-soo’s overwhelming need to possess the shoes and eclipse her mother’s femininity arrives well ahead of schedule.

Shoes aside, Sun-jae does not seem to be a well woman. Problems with her eyes do not quite explain the flashbacks she’s been experiencing to an apparently traumatic episode in the 1940s in which the shoes seem to feature. She’s also begun having strange waking dreams which involve blood, lots of blood – far more blood than any one body could realistically contain, and bad things happening to Tae-soo. Eventually Sun-jae figures out that the shoes were a bad idea and that there may be other stuff going on in her life that she isn’t exactly aware of, but the extent to which cursed footwear is influencing her behaviour may be open to debate given later (though extremely obvious) revelations.

It just goes to show that misplaced desire can leave you footless and fancy free. Kim does his best to make modern day Seoul a supernaturally scary place, overlaying eerily empty shots of intersections and train stations with gothic infused musical cues whilst having Sun-jae move into the kind of place which only someone trying to disappear would consider. Adding in touches of surrealism from the aesthetically beautiful fantasy sequences to snowing blood, Kim creates the atmosphere of fairy tale whilst allowing for an imbalance of perception in the possibly fracturing mind of his heroine. Despite the often impressive cinematography and strong leading performance from Kim Hye-soo, The Red Shoes never manages to transcend its lack of originality and frequent callbacks to similarly themed genre efforts but nevertheless offers its share of elegantly composed scares even if its internal integrity fails to convince.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Kim Dae-seung, 2012)

the-concubineYou can become the King of all Korea and your mum still won’t be happy. So it is for poor Prince Sungwon (Kim Dong-wook) who becomes accidental Iago in this Joseon tale of betrayal, cruelty, and love turning to hate in the toxic environment of the imperial court – Kim Dae-seung’s The Concubine (후궁: 제왕의 첩, Hugoong: Jewangui Chub). Power and impotence corrupt equally as the battlefield shifts to the bedroom and sex becomes weapon and currency in a complex political struggle.

Prince Sungwon first catches sight of official’s daughter Hwa-yeon (Cho Yeo-jeong) after a hunting party and develops a dangerous attraction to her. His possessive parent, the Queen Mother (Park Ji-young), finds this worrying and manoeuvres to take Hwa-yeon out of the picture by having her brought to court as a concubine of the king. Hwa-yeon, however, has a love of her own in the roguish hanger-on Kwon-yoo (Kim Min-jun) and is willing to risk her life by defying the imperial orders and running away with him. The pair consummate their union but are discovered at first light whereupon Hwa-yeon agrees to go to court on the condition Kwon-yoo’s life is spared.

Some years later, Hwa-yeon is the reigning queen as the mother of the sickly king’s only son but her life becomes considerably more complicated when the king dies in mysterious circumstances. Power passes back to the Queen Mother who puts her son, Sungwon, on the throne, making Hwa-yeon and the young prince direct threats to her power base. Sungwon is still in love with Hwa-yeon but his mother forbids him from pursuing her. Forbidding is something his mother does quite a lot of, and it’s not long before Sungwon becomes frustrated with his lack of real power. Matters come to a head when Kwon-yoo also resurfaces as a eunuch at the imperial court.

The imperial court is a golden prison and a world in itself. Once entered, it cannot be escaped. Everyone is vying for power but no one really has any. The king’s ill health and lack of a direct heir has left him dangerously vulnerable and the Queen Mother in a position of unusual strength. If one thing is clear, it’s that she has had to play a long game to get here, done terrible things in the name of power or self preservation, and will stop at nothing to make sure she remains on top.

The Queen Mother’s ascendency is contrasted with Hwa-yeon’s fall as she finds herself forced into the court against her will. Realising her total lack of agency as the court ladies are instructed to obey protocol in undressing her for the bath rather than allowing her to undress herself, Hwa-yeon exclaims that she has no right to her own body. Hwa-yeon’s body is, now, imperial property to be used and abused by the king for his pleasure and his alone. However, the Queen Mother may have met her match in the steely and intelligent politician’s daughter who seems just as well equipped to play the game as she is.

Much has been made of the sexual content of The Concubine which was largely sold on its titillating qualities. However, even if the adult content is frank it is far from erotic as sex becomes a tool of control and manipulation – one of the few available to the subjugated women of the court environment. Aside from the first love scene between Hwa-yeon and her true love, Kwon-yoo (which is perhaps the least direct), none of the subsequent scenes is fully consensual, each a part of a wider scheme or courtly ritual. Rather than an expression of love or intimacy, sex is an act of mutual conquest in which each side, essentially, loses.

Sungwon finds himself powerless both politically and romantically, unable to wrest power away from his controlling mother or win the heart of the already brutalised Hwa-yeon. A prisoner of his own circumstances, Sungwon’s increasing feelings of impotence manifest in violence and erratic behaviour as his obsession with Hwa-yeon borders on madness. Far from a liberation, Sungwon’s sex life is, in a sense literally, dictated as his ritualised consummation of marriage is conducted in front of an audience shouting out commands from behind screen doors who eventually criticise him for his lack of stamina. Kwon-yoo has been robbed of his ability to engage in this game and his desire for revenge is intense yet he will have to take it from the shadows by stealth if at all.

Director Kim Dae-seung manages the intrigue well in crafting the intensely claustrophobic environment of the oppressive court whilst ensuring motivations and desires remain crystal clear. There are no winners here even if there is a reigning champion claiming the throne. The cycle of violence and manipulation seems set to continue as even those who entered as innocents leave with blood on their hands, having become the very thing they fought so hard against. Often beautifully shot with opulent production values, The Concubine is an ice cold thriller in which desire competes with reason but rarely, if ever, with love.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Handmaiden (아가씨, Park Chan-wook, 2016)

handmaiden.jpgPark Chan-wook has something of a track record when it comes to bending literary sources in unexpected ways – who else would have thought of adding vampires to Thérèse Raquin and actually managed to make it work? In The Handmaiden (아가씨, Agasshi), his first return to Korean filmmaking after Stoker’s foray into American Gothic, Park adapts Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – a Dickensian tale of love and the multilayered con, and relocates it to 1930s Korea under Japanese rule.

Ambivalent attitudes to the Japanese is a key element exploited by a ruthless conman posing as “Count Fujiwara” (Ha Jung-woo) in order to seduce a lonely heiress. To complete his elaborate plan, he needs the help of pickpocket extraordinaire, Sook-hee (Kim Tae-Ri), whom he will install as a maid in the household so she can subtly sell the virtues of the dashing nobleman to the innocent flower trapped in a well of opulence.

On arriving at the curiously constructed mansion which is an elegant architectural mix of Korean, Japanese, and English country estate, Sook-hee is quite literally out of place in the upperclass environment a world away from her home in a den of petty of thieves doubling as a baby farm. Another thing she had not quite banked on was that her new mistress, Hideko (Kim Min-hee), would be quite so pretty. A serious spanner is thrown in the works as a mutual attraction builds up between the two women who, for reasons which become apparent, are being pulled in separate directions by other desires.

Park retains Waters’ tripartite structure even if he jettisons the final plot reveal for a less intricate tale of liberation and escape. Beginning with Sook-hee’s narrative he introduces us to the first layer of the con but also to Sook-hee and her down and dirty home in the criminal underworld. Chosen by the Count for her supposed lack of intellect and innocent naivety, Sook-hee is not quite at home among her family either. Both believing the promise that the babies they collect and sell in Japan will be going on to better lives and lamenting the cruelty of the whole business in wanting to mother the lot of them, Sook-hee is soft presence yet she also wants to prove herself as adept at criminality as her legendary, now deceased, mother.

It’s this essential warmth which eventually attracts Hideko’s attention. The much talked about tooth filing scene in which Sook-hee takes out a thimble to soften a lacerating sharpness in her mistress’ mouth is not just notable for the oddly erotic quality born of the obvious suggestive motion, unavoidable intimacy created by the closeness of bodies, and the growing desire of fleeting, furtive glances, but for its essential kindness. Moving into Hideko’s perspective for the second chapter, more is learned about her damaged past filled with cruelty and abuse. Orphaned and brought to Japan as a small child by her pornography obsessed uncle so that he might train her to entertain him with readings of erotic literature before he eventually marries her to inherit the family fortune, Hideko has never known anything as simple as unguarded goodness.

Caught up in a long con, the choice remains whether to blow cover and declare one’s hand or play the thing through to the end, however painful it may be. Park takes a different route than in the original novel which makes both of its heroines the victims of someone else’s avaricious plot of revenge against the cruelty of an unequal world, eventually reinforcing their bond by a shared rejection of their victimhood, but even when their passions eventually erupt the lovemaking begins as a another “con” where Sook-hee takes on the role of the Count, “educating” the assumedly “innocent” Hideko in the ways of desire.

Trapped within an oppressive gilded cage of a prison, Hideko has become the embodiment of desire for her cruel and eccentric uncle and the groups of men he invites to listen to her read erotic literature as if reciting a classical play. Complete with sideshows of sex dolls and theatrical scenery, Hideko is forced to act out the scenes from the books as an actress on the stage for an audience rapt in silence. Unable to escape alone, Hideko is offered new hope by Sook-hee’s straightforward outrage which allows the pair to destroy or repurpose the instruments of their oppression for their own pleasure. This is, in essence, their form of revenge in which they simply remove themselves from an abusive environment leaving the men behind to wonder at what’s gone wrong and later to destroy themselves without any additional help.

Filled with a gothic sense of impossible desires and uncertain judgements, The Handmaiden is unafraid of the genre’s melodramatic roots but is all the better for it. Beautifully photographed, this opulent world of swishing ball gowns and gloved hands is undercut by the ugliness of quisling collaborator Kouzuki and his basement of horrors. Erotically charged but ultimately driven by love, The Handmaiden is another unconventionally romantic effort from Park albeit one coloured by his characteristic sense of gothic darkness.


Reviewed at 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Wailing (곡성, Na Hong-Jin, 2016)

wailingFor the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand – the residents of Goksung, the setting for Na Hong-jin’s nihilistic horror movie The Wailing (곡성, Goksung), might be inclined to agree with Yeats if only because the name of their town is also a homonym for the “sound of weeping”. There is plenty to weep over, and in places Na’s film begins to feel like one long plaintive cry reaching far back to the dawn of time but the main wounds are comparatively more recent – colonisation, not only of a landscape but of a soul. When it comes to gods, should you trust one over another simply because of its country of origin or is your faith to  be bestowed in something with more universal application?

Goksung is a sleepy little rural town way up in the mountains. This is the kind of place where nothing much ever happens but today all of that is about to change as a local man has committed a series of bloody murders and is now in a dissociative state. Bumbling policeman Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) arrives late to the crime scene but quickly finds himself pulled in to the ongoing investigations as bodies begin piling up in the previously quiet town.

The rational explanation for the spate of violent killings is blamed on a tonic containing some funny mushrooms but others have another idea. All of this started happening after a Japanese guy (Jun Kunimura) moved to the town. Some say he’s a professor, some say he’s a Buddhist monk, but there also those who hold him responsible for the rape of a local woman, and there are even reports of him running about the forest dressed only in a loincloth and feasting on the remains of fallen animals.

Eventually, Jung-goo’s young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) falls under the curse, giving him an unavoidable impetus to find the truth. As well as the “suspicious” Japanese visitor, Jung-goo also comes into contact with a mysterious young woman dressed in white (Chun Woo-hee) who may be either friend or foe, whilst shamans and the Catholic Church are each approached for their advice on this singularly supernatural phenomenon.

This being quite a sleepy town, Jung-goo’s days most likely involved a lot of napping, eating, and card playing, broken up with chatting to old ladies. So unaccustomed to crime are they, they didn’t quite remember to put their gloves on before investigating a crime scene. Jung-goo and his partner are constantly branded “morons” by their boss and if the night they end up guarding the police station during a thunderstorm is anything to go by, they aren’t exactly the bravest of souls either. Not the best pair to be investigating a complex, supernatural mystery they decide to heed the rumours and pay a visit to the Japanese guy living way out in the woods.

Known only by the derogatory term “the Jap”, the new addition to the village quickly falls under suspicion thanks to the old fashioned crime of not being from around here. Whether out of resentment for historical crimes or simply because of being an outsider, everyone decides the Japanese visitor must, in some way, be responsible. Suspicions are compounded when Jung-goo, his partner, and his partner’s nephew who happens to be a Catholic priest in training with a solid command of Japanese, discover some very odd things whilst snooping around the man’s home. Is the mysterious visitor really, literally, a “Japanese devil” or just the victim of an ongoing campaign of intense xenophobia and the supernatural elements attributed to him a manifestation of that extremely offensive term?

Na keeps us guessing. Meanwhile, ancient remedies are sought when ancient ones are awakened, hence Jung-goo’s mother-in-law turns to shamanism to try and cure her granddaughter of her increasingly serious illness. The shaman (Hwang Jung-Min) arrives more like a TV evangelist than a witch doctor – smart suit and turtleneck, topped of with long hair tied into a bun. The exorcism scene itself is a furious battle between light and darkness (or so we presume) as the shaman dances wildly to the pulsating drum beats of his orchestra, sacrificing a chicken here and a goat there, all while Hyo-jin writhes in agony in the next room and his enemy performs a counter ritual from his recently refurbished lair.

“Believe in me and you shall be saved” is a message Jung-goo receives from just about everyone during the course of the film. The Catholic Church, however, is resolutely opposed to the idea of this demonic threat and informs Jung-goo that this is not a religious matter – he ought to take his daughter back to the hospital and instil his “faith” in modern medicine. Faith appears to be the central question, in what or whom should one believe? Can Jung-goo trust his shaman, is the Japanese guy an ally, threat, or just a neutral, ordinary man, and what of the oddly intense woman dressed in white? In the end, Jung-goo’s faith is questioned but he pays dearly for his final decision. Had he placed more faith in the old gods, his fate might have been very different but Jung-goo chose real world logic (not his strongest suit) over spiritual intuition and failed to heed the warnings.

Jung-goo, though presented as a broadly sympathetic presence, is partly responsible for his own downfall through his willingness to embrace the baser elements of his nature. In contrast to his otherwise laid-back character which sees him late to work because of family meals, Jung-goo has a violent streak first seen when he takes defending himself from an angry dog far further than he needed to. Later he rounds a group of friends to help him take out the Japanese man in a worrying stab at mob justice. Neither quality is very endearing but Jung-goo’s position as a slightly dim bruiser who mistakenly thinks he can smash his way out of a spiritual conundrum makes him an unlikely choice of saviour.

Na offers nothing in the way of hope, the forces of darkness are set to conquer the world helped only by humanity’s propensity towards doubt, its selfishness, and its fear. The dark humour fades as the pace increases until the film approaches its bleaker than bleak finale. This is a land of ghosts, both fleshy and otherwise but in order to bid them goodbye you must first accept their presence. In the end it’s all a question of faith but those most worthy of it may be among the most difficult to believe.


Reviewed at 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)