The Shoe Fairy (2005)
Written & directed by: Robin Lee
Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2005:
Someone prominent finally jumped on the wagon carrying the idea that Hong Kong cinema not only needs to expand big but expand small, giving new directors a chance to showcase their work with the appropriate backing. Headed by Andy Lau, Focus Films made that idea a reality with their project "FOCUS: First Cuts", a series of six films from filmmakers of Mainland China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. Thankfully, Lau's involvement in this hasn't been a fashion statement as such as he has continually acknowledged the different films and even appeared. Biggest success story out of all this continues to be Mainland China's Ning Hao, whose comedy Crazy Stone did very favourably at the local box-office. A surprise considering the genre isn't all that bankable for that particular market and earlier in 2005, Robin Lee out of Taiwan, managed to make an award winning "FOCUS: First Cuts" film.
Dodo (played as an adult by Vivian Hsu from The Accidental Spy and Angel Heart) goes through an operation at a young age that cures her paralysis. Infatuated with fairy tales and now shoes, she goes on a shopping bender, creating a magical world of her own with shoes at center. When meeting, falling in love and eventually marrying dentist Smiley (Duncan Lai), new sets of priorities towards the goal of happiness must be set. Dodo fully realizes that too late and tragedy strikes...
As with the other contributions to the "FOCUS: First Cuts" series of films, The Shoe Fairy was shot on Digital Video but writer/director Robin Lee is equipped with a visual sense that easily transcends the home video look of the medium. The Shoe Fairy really opts to be design-wise and structurally a fairy tale, even if it goes very gray at points (some known tales certainly did as well) and the DV look really plays into Lee's favour as she drowns the picture in a stunning palette of colours (much thanks to the opportunities to drastically alter that aspect in post-production, having shot on DV). Add on top of that some of the best art direction you're likely to see for a long time and the stage is merely set for Lee's exploration of happiness. The striking nature of the film isn't there to take away, it's there to enhance.
The Shoe Fairy really is otherworldly by design though, even hard to place in an era as Vivian Hsu herself and to a large extent the surroundings seems lifted straight out of 1950/60s American suburbia (although a scene with iPods kills that theory). The reality is heightened even more than that however but the setting makes absolutely perfect sense, and also allows for a quirky sense of humour (even visually) to come through via the usage of the sets and clever CGI. The sly nature of the narrative does seem to take upper hand but since Lee embraces it, we're welcomed to do so as well and then smoothly go on a distinctly real journey in the landscape. Narrated suitably by Andy Lau, Dodo and Smiley's marriage and quest for happiness takes center stage with director Lee revealing her additional skill in communicating simply but intelligently.
Dodo really is a material girl, seriously challenging Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw with her collection of shoes. On the road to happiness, can this obsession be shared with your true, human love? Obviously not but it's a struggle for Dodo to let go her old, highly imprinted routines of the day (including passing by the shoe shop). It's not so much neglecting on her behalf as the marriage seems to find its natural path after all but with the central, symbolic quote of happiness arriving by the time you own a black sheep and white one, there's something lurking around the corner. Yes, even this clean, perfect world can be crushed and drained of its colours.
Lee really puts forth distressing emotions as she takes her characters to tragic places but stays well in tune with a dreamy nature to The Shoe Fairy without sacrificing the theme. Humour has been dealt with successfully, now it's human drama's turn. It's certainly light arguably but Lee's keen sense of visual storytelling as well as subtlety affects us. We'd like to see the perfect couple go on happy paths but are equally engrossed when it's revealed you have to actually struggle for your love as well. Lee comes to a fine key point where the final definition of happiness must be pondered upon by us and characters. We'll gladly do it, perhaps figure it out later. To go even more cryptic on you, perhaps the characters deserve to fully figure out later rather than just before the 90 minutes are over what they've achieved and want to.
Robin Lee does her job very well in that regard by dividing her time by challenging us as well as sweeping us away on a visual journey through a land of slight surrealism taken straight from some of our time's most acknowledged and meaningful children's tales. It's absorbing and easy to absorb, without a hint of pretentiousness, considering Lee is a first time filmmaker. With in-tune performances by Vivian Hsu and Duncan Lai, "FOCUS: First Cuts" have been the recipient of a gift they're now letting take its flight all over the world. Robin Lee, we welcome you to spread your wings again and again.
IVL presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.92:1, with anamorphic enhancement. The Digital Video look and the chosen cinematography for this production produces a sharp and stunningly colourful transfer.
The Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 track has clear, intelligible dialogue and uses the fronts well for the soothing score.
The English subtitles contains a few spelling errors but on the whole are well-worded. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
IVL has put together a minor extras section as well, with English subtitles only for the trailers and promotional material. The Making Of (9 minutes, 59 seconds) offers no surprises with its inclusion of cast & crew interviews and behind the scenes footage. The trailer for The Shoe Fairy and a 7 page Photo Gallery ends the movie specific extras.
Other promotional material then appear, starting with FOCUS: First Cuts Showreel that touts the project at hand, bombastically, and briefly promotes the films involved. Considering the quality of The Shoe Fairy, why not be proud x 10? Trailers for I'll Call You (Hong Kong - directed by Lam Tze Chung), Rain Dogs (Malaysia - Ho YuHang) and Love Story (Singapore - Kelvin Tong) finishes the disc.
Visit focusfirstcuts.com for an overview of the project, director's statements and much more.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson