When Korean entertainment takes on itself: IU’s The Red Shoes

Over the next few weeks we will be running a series of posts looking at the ways the Korean media industry has been explored, parodied and criticised in different media texts. First up: IU’s The Red Shoes.

IU’s videos historically have had massive budgets and huge set pieces and The Red Shoes is no different. What does mark it as different from her previous videos such as Good Day and You & I is the much darker tone it takes on. The video uses the existing narrative of The Red Shoes, both a classic fairytale and a classic film, in order to, as I will argue, make a point about the realities of idol life.

The original Hans Christen Andersen fairytale is a deeply sinister one. A good outline can be found in the dialogue of the 1948 British film of the same name:

“It is the story of a girl who is devoured by an ambition to attend a dance in a pair of red shoes. She gets the shoes, goes to the dance and at first all is well and she is very happy. At the end of the evening she gets tired and wants to go home. But the red shoes are not tired. In fact the red shoes are never tired. They dance out into the streets, they dance over the mountains and valleys – through fields and forests, through night and day. Time rushes by, love rushes by, life rushes by but the shoes dance on.

Eventually the girl goes to the local executioner in despair and asks him to cut off her feet. Hobbling on crutches she goes to her local church repenting her sins and shortly after she dies and her soul flies to heaven.

Cheery stuff.

the red shoes 1948

A still from The Red Shoes’ famous ballet sequence

However the plot of the video seems to be more closely based on the aforementioned film, which Empire magazine listed at number 3 in its best British films of all time. It tells the story of a young and talented ballet dancer, Vicky Page, who joins a ballet company headed up by impresario Mr Lermontov who wants to make Vicky into one of the world’s greatest dancers. After her first leading role in the ballet “The Red Shoes”, she falls in love with the young composer Julian Craster, who wrote the ballet’s score. When Lermontov finds out, he kicks Julian out of the company and Vicky soon leaves as well in order to marry Julian. Eventually Lermontov asks Vicky to re-join his company so that she can dance as lead in a revival of The Red Shoes. But on the opening night of his new opera, Julian appears at the theatre just before the start of a performance to take Vicky with him to see the premiere. After an argument with both Lermontov and Julian, Vicky, unable to choose between her love and her art is driven by a sudden urge, crucially while wearing red ballet shoes, to jump off her balcony into the path of an incoming train.

Again, a very happy story.

The IU song and video incorporate elements from both versions of the story but then develop them into its own unique narrative. The video seems to follows the film’s theme of sacrificing love for art but gives IU’s character less control over her own fate. In fact, I would argue that the video explores less the sacrifice and incompatibility of love and art and more the incompatibility not just of love but also creativity and close human relationships with fame. I think it could be argued that the eponymous red shoes in this piece represent the idol industry itself and IU’s role within it.

Unlike the film which uses the red shoes more as a symbolic force, the shoes in the IU video have mystical power and a life of their own. They also have a counterpart in a pair of pink shoes which are given to IU by her love interest (played by Jang Gi-yong). These shoes could indicate an alternative path for IU and it is interesting that first lyric we hear after she puts them on is:

“They say you can go to better places if you wear better shoes”

And when the shoes are later mentioned in the lyrics the pink shoes seemed to be distinguished as the thing that allows her to follow her heart:

“My feet keep, my feet keep going their own way, yoo hoo

Oh my pink shoes, oh my

I will set my heart, set my heart properly, yoo hoo

Yah yah, a little faster”

(Side note, the use of a pair of pink shoes might seems a little random to an English speaker until you realise that the Korean title “분홍신” actually translates to “The Pink Shoes”. Interestingly, this dates back to when the film was released in Korea in 1954. Only a year after the end of the Korean War, the distributors felt that the colour red was too gruesome and dark after years of bloodshed and so chose something more whimsical – pink.)

iu bohemians

IU and friends caught in la vie de bohème

Another important facet of the video is the band of merry bohemians (headed up by Yoo Hee-yeol) that IU befriends. They clearly seem to represent an alternative lifestyle with more freedom – they are musicians and writers and I also think there maybe implied drug use (in the slowed down scenes with the feathers and Yoo Hee-yeol’s socks which appear to feature marijuana leaves) and homosexuality (with the Peppertones’ fabulous matching outfits and overly friendly interactions). That may be reading into it too much but the point is that they embody a different more free way of living, one which has a strong hold on IU. However the red shoes have a different fate for her.

This is apparent in role of the black and white and the colour scenes. The video’s director Hwang Soo-ah described the difference between them in an interview as:

“The past and the present, reality and imagination.

In the second half of the MV, IU enters a black and white world again, and that’s the world that she belongs to. The colour scene is the world that she wants to go to.”


Viewing the video in this way, the narrative becomes much easier to understand. Wearing the red shoes initially allows IU access to the Technicolor world of the “gypsies” (as Hwang describes them) but, as the dark sets in, the shoes come alive and drag IU back to her black and white reality. However I do think this is meant to be a fantasy sequence which represents the power of the red shoes over her as she is also shown, in a black and white sequence, to choose the shoes over Jang’s character (at around 04.30).

This is where it gets interesting. If the shoes represent the idol industry then she does actually choose to wear them at two points in the video but that’s all she gets to choose. She may get to have some dalliances with the pink shoes but once she has chosen the red shoes, they will ultimately always win. They take on a life of their own and she is forced to dance again and again. While she appears to enjoy performing, the speed and frequency with which she has to perform is beyond her control. The shoes allow her to perform on the big stage as the star of a film but her choice brings her all kinds of personal hardships and makes her unable to have the freedom and personal life that she craves. This seems to be a good metaphor for the role idols have in the industry.

As the lyrics say:

“I’m not sad, I am dancing
Again, again”

red shoes ending

If that does sum up the life of an idol, I don’t know what could.

Have you seen any other music videos, dramas or films which we could write about? Let us know in the comments.

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  • khanhchi

    Very interesting article. The song appears to be much clearer to me now. Thank you!

  • gulagula

    Your analysis on the intertextuality of Red Shoes elements is amazing. Kudos for that. I realize that the slow-mo’ed scene where they play with feathers and colourful pillows is in fact suggest that they are on crack or something but I missed the socks part tho. You have hawk eyes and that’s really help us the audience to further interpret the mv.

    and I really wanna read your take on Song Jieun’s False Hope because I realized there are so many objects symbolically served as the metaphor on her relationship. So pretty please? :3

    Again, thanks for the amazing read! Can’t wait to read more update from this site.

  • Aria Haneul

    Love your interpretation, I understand a lot of things I missed watching the video. Looking forward to more pieces like this. It’s always interesting to see interpretations of Korean songs/videos since I can’t get a lot of the culture/language/historical references. I definitely enjoy IU’s videos and songs, but I feel I don’t get half the messages because of the language barrier.