Remarking upon the oddly ambiguous familiarity of “the red shoes” in the film, the heroine’s boyfriend is quite accurate in reminding the informed movie fans that the red shoes in the 1948 British fantasy by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger served female desire, but nevertheless were used to both transpose and conceal the male desire to control the female body. In the Korean take-off, the fatal lure becomes the object of excessive female greed and reconfigures the ways through which desire reconfigures the ways through which desire is renegotiated in cinematic representations. This chapter examines how the fetishistic system of signification regenerates horror and desire in The Red Shoes and other recent Korean horror films that recycle the motif of female greed.
In addressing the oblique fraudulence of the above-mentioned semantic replicas, I need to clarify that the fatal lure in The Red Shoes is not exactly red but pink. The exact word-to-word English translation of the Korean title, Bunhongsin, would have to be “The Pink Shoes,” which accords with the old Korean-translated title of the British production and the originating Hans Andersen tale. The British film The Red Shoes as well as the Danish fairy-tale has always been “The Pink Shoes” in Korean books, movie theaters, and television for decades. And so is the official English title of Kim’s contemporary horror. What we see on screen is effectively a pair of unmistakably pink pumps, as the Korean title “correctly” announces. In this bizarre case of misrecognition, the erratic (English) signifier slips from the screen and hovers like a ghost in the semantic rift. Caught between the underlying semantic constancy that they attempt at weaving and the inevitable paradigmatic shift that they perform, the vacillating signifiers evoke the impossible object, the true terror of the unconscious.
This semantic slippage or false color-blindness, of course, hardly surfaces in the story itself. The impossible object evoked in the ghostly signs, however, nearly symbolizes the system of metonymic displacements that recirculates desire and anxiety throughout the narrative. The Korean title of the film, The Pink Shoes, simultaneously recalls and resists the memory associated with the “original” signifiers, while the English title, The Red Shoes, deviates from the present and reveals the fragility of (dramatic) reality as a historical artifice. Incidentally, though not thought out by the makers of the dual signs, this is precisely what happens to the heroine of the story, Sun-jae (Kim Hye-su). The past beyond her consciousness is simultaneously epressed and conjured up by the sign she carries; her everyday reality is disintegrated by the hidden, unconscious memories embodied in the sign. The horror lies in the irreducible rift between the present and the past, between the text and the pretext, between the uniqueness of the signifier and its historical doubles. We ought to recall after all, in our quest toward the “origin” of the horror, the Lacanian proposition that “the Truth itself is constituted through the illusion proper to transference — ‘the Truth arises from misrecognition’.” Error is not only “part of the Truth itself,” as Slavoj Žižek elaborates, but also a necessary constituent, without which the truth cannot be conceived. It is perhaps from this simple misrecognition that a “truth” about the horror evoked by the named object will arise for us.
The impossible signification of the English title The Red Shoes, to begin with, precisely reverberates the Lacanian notion of language, according to which, language never fully points to what it means to convey. In the Freudian/Lacanian context, loss is always comprised as an integral condition of signification; the signifier is necessarily a self-referential index of its own semantic failure. The reason why I go on with the questions of signification is that the horror rendered in recent Korean films involves larger networks of cinematic signs beyond each diegetic world. The Red Shoes as a signifier produced by an error precisely evokes this paradoxical semantic representation of the lack. What it slips to is its fragility and duplicity that it wants to elude. The erroneous sign, in other words, is a symptomatic indicator that reveals what the horror film in general always intends to flirt with — the symbolic wound. To unveil this “unconscious” layer of the text, it might be useful to first focus on what the Korean title demands us to gaze at with firm yet failing plainness: the pink shoes.
That Unobscure Object of Desire and Horror: On Some Uncanny Things in Recent Korean Horror Films (Hyun-suk Seo)