Originally released in 2004 and now being re-issued on DVD, “The Scarlet Letter” is sadly best known for having been the last film to feature actress Lee Eun Joo, who took her own life shortly after production had been completed. Bearing no relation to the famous novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne with which it shares its title, the complex drama also marked the third and last directorial effort to date from Daniel H. Byun, previously responsible for “Interview”. Although not particularly popular upon its original domestic run, in part due to its adult themes and content, the film has since enjoyed a successful international release, and has brought in more curious viewers, no doubt mainly due to the tragic real life events which followed – a shame, since the film is a superior and mature mystery in its own right, which although flawed stands out from the crowd of the usual Korean melodramas.
The plot revolves around a temptation-prone cop called Ki Hoon (respected actor Han Suk Kyu, also in “Shiri” and “Green Fish”), who likes to play the field despite being married to the lovely beautiful Soo Hyun (Uhm Ji Won, “Scout”, “Mutt Boy”), carrying on an affair with her best friend, nightclub singer Ka Hee (the tragic Lee Eun Joo, who had previously starred in “Taegugki” and “Bunjee Jumping of Their Own”). As if things weren’t complicated enough, he finds himself falling for murder suspect Kyung Hee (star of “Cello” and Kim Ki Duk’s “Time”), who may or may not have murdered her husband. His investigation unearths not only secrets about the case, but also about himself and the women in his life, and he is forced to face up to a series of uncomfortable, not to mention potentially deadly revelations.
With its dark mixture of cop thriller, murder mystery and character drama, “The Scarlet Letter” can be seen as a forerunner to the recent trend of modern noir films. The film certainly features a twisted and complex plot, which packs in plenty of ambiguity and hidden motivations, with director Byun doing his very best to toy with the audience. Even experienced and genre-savvy viewers may find themselves surprised by some of the developments during the final act, and although many of these do verge on the ridiculous, the film is gripping right through to the satisfyingly dark ending. The tone is pretty grim throughout, and the film is pleasingly devoid of the usual melodramatic copouts which tend to blight so many Korean genre films, with Byun keeping his nerve and managing to make a few nihilistic statements about temptation, obsession and human weakness.
This having been said, the plot does meander somewhat, and frequently heads off on odd tangents, and Byun does seem more interested in his characters than in the actual murder itself. This is by no means a bad thing, and the film actually benefits from this approach, with Ki Hoon making for a fascinatingly flawed protagonist who is by no means a traditional nice guy, being thoroughly amoral and vain, and only really having himself to blame for his many woes. Lee Eun Joo turns in a solid performance, though it’s hard not to relate her role with the personal pain she may have been going through at the time, and this gives her character an unavoidably haunted feel which pervades much of the film.
The film is visually polished with a handsome look, and Byun again goes for a distinctly noir feel. Many of the scenes are under-lit, and the dark and smoky locations make for a suitably moody atmosphere that fits well with the themes. The film is an adult affair, being quite violent and grisly in places, especially towards the end, and featuring some graphic nudity and sexual content. None of these scenes are gratuitous, and if anything the film veers towards the art house rather than the exploitative, with sexual politics and confusion playing an important role.
As such, “The Scarlet Letter” may disappoint viewers lured in by the promise of its visceral content, as its focus is firmly on its tangled web of psychological intrigue rather than cheap titillation. Dark and twisted, it still stands as one of the more ambitious and interesting mystery thrillers to have come from Korea in recent years, and provides a sad reminder of the talent that was lost in Lee Eun Joo.
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