Scarlet Letter (2004) Movie Review

Just 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 money.

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.

Daniel H. Byun (director) / Daniel H. Byun (screenplay)
CAST: Suk-kyu Han …. Ki-hoon Lee
Eun-ju Lee …. Ka-hee
Hyeon-a Seong …. Kyung-hee
Ji-won Uhm …. Su-hyun

Buy Scarlet Letter on DVD