ust when you think you've seen every type of cop
movie South Korea is capable of making, Daniel Byun goes and makes sure you
haven't seen anything yet. Which, in the case of Byun's "Scarlet
Letter", is not necessarily a good thing, especially since the film
seems more concern with the extracurricular activities of its leading man, a
slick cop name Ki-hoon (Suk-kyu Han), then it is trying to create any
excitement with the murder investigation that takes up half of the film. In
a perfect world -- or perhaps, a better movie -- "Scarlet Letter"
would be a drama about a cop who can't keep his pants on, with his work
passing by in the background.
Alas, we're not living in a
perfect world, and "Scarlet Letter" is far from a perfect movie.
If it were, then writer/director Daniel Byun would have made more than a
cursory effort to make the film's murder investigation interesting. Such as
it is, the film's big whodunit concerns the daytime bludgeoning of an
unlikable photography studio owner who was found dead by his unhappy wife
Kyung-hee (Hyeon-a Seong, "Woman is the Future of Man"). Ki-hoon
immediately suspects the wife, and with good reason. Kyung-hee makes for a
poor grieving widow, and soon she's paying off a hoodlum with a large sum of
Meanwhile, back in Ki-hoon Land, trouble is
a-brewin'. The Detective, an opera and music lover, is juggling a devoted
violinist wife at home and a jazz singer on the side. As bad luck would
have it, they're both pregnant. Played by Ji-won Uhm ("The
Record"), wife Su-hyun has the personality of a mannequin and
half the charm, which might be why Ki-hoon is constantly engaged in hot
and frenzied sex with the much livelier Ka-hee (Eun-ju Lee, recently in
the blockbuster "Taegukgi",
and before that, the simply awful "Unborn
but Forgotten"). But juggling two pregnant women who also used to
be best friends is not the best decision Ki-hoon could have made, and soon
a car, a lake, and the trunk of said car parked on said lake, comes into
play with disastrous results.
Clearly, "Scarlet Letter" is more
interested in the personal life of its police Captain played by Suk-kyu
Han and his two women than it is with solving some plodding murder case.
It doesn't help that at the heart of the murder is Hyeon-a Seong, an
actress who seems to be engaged in a duel with fellow actress Ji-won Uhm
to see who can show the least hints of actual life. My verdict: it's a
tie. Helping to inject some life into the film is Eun-ju Lee, whose
believable performance as "the other woman" puts her two female
co-stars to shame. Or, at the very least, you didn't have a lot of trouble
believing she's actually alive, and not some computer generated creation
without a personality program.
In any case, much of the film focuses on Ki-hoon,
played by Suk-kyu Han, who has been the lead in two of Korea's biggest
movies in the last decade (the thriller "Tell
Me Something", in which he also played a cop working on a
plodding police investigation, and the breakthrough spy film "Shiri").
Although curiously it's a little awkward to see Han in such a vain role,
and every now and then one can't help but expect Ki-hoon to buckle up and
do the right thing since, well, he's being played by the straightest actor
in all of Korea. To his credit, Han does manage to make the role work,
even though you can't help but shake the feeling that an actor with a less
prestigious resume would have been a better fit.
Not surprisingly, "Scarlet Letter" didn't
exactly break box office records when it was released in South Korea. It's
a strange movie, the kind that leads you to expect one thing, then offers
something else in its stead once you've committed. The film probably has
too many characters and too many A-plots when there should only have been
three main characters and one simple plot. Instead, Byun's script is
littered with irrelevant twists and turns. Of note is a revelation
involving the secret background of the two women in Ki-hoon's life, which
seems to come out of left field and falls with a thud onscreen. Are we
supposed to be gasping with shock by it? I'm not sure, actually.
While an ultimately unsatisfying film in many
respects, "Scarlet Letter" has some nice visual touches that
make it worthwhile from a technical point of view. Byun showcases some
smooth camera tricks, in particular his distortion of space-time. If
nothing else, the film certainly continues to foster the theory that the
South Koreans make some of the most gorgeous films out there right now.
And of course the soundtrack is quite good, the music adding passion to a
movie that oftentimes feels unsure of itself.
In any case, you can definitely say that Byun has a
sense of humor about the whole thing. In one inspired scene, Ki-hoon is
talking to a priest when he gets a call from his mistress, and has to
excuse himself to take the phone call. And of course there's just
something outrageous and completely absurd about the film's trunk sequence
that you have to wonder if Byun was on some kind of medication when he
wrote it. At the very least, "Scarlet Letter's" final 30 minutes
is one of the stranger Third Acts I've seen in a long while.