40 The Scarlet Letter

A special surprise for you you gentle reader.  Some spare time and an ever increasing backlog means that I am posting a little earlier than expected.

The Scarlet Letter” is I suppose on the face of it a Korean Film0157 Noir.  It is not another version of the novel – although it is referenced somewhat obliquely near the end. There is a crime being investigated, but it is really a piece of background colour to the exploration of the lead Policeman, Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu), and his relationship with both his wife Su-hyeon (Uhm Ji-won) and his long term mistress Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju).  Being a Film Noir,  things end badly.

You cannot talk about his movie without mentioning that this was the last film of Lee Eun-ju, who committed suicide shortly after the films release.  Much speculation has been made about how the nudity and content of this movie may have had an effect on her state of mind, and I really don’t know one way or the other.  What I do know is that once you know the tragedy behind the film, you cannot fail to allow yourself to be affected by her performance.

As most modern Korean movies seem to be these days, the film is beautiful and glossy, but actually in this case, I feel this is to the movies detriment.  Everything is so clean, well lit, beautifully framed, that it fails to bring home the horror of both the murder and the duplicitous world of Ki-hoon.

Did I mention nudity?  The film is full of naked lithe bodies (both male and female), showing acres of flash, but breasts and genitals are always covered up.  This is a perfectly fine approach, but I feel the movie was going for a “Basic Instinct”-vibe and hiding things behind some kind of artistic modesty leaves the film in a netherland of neither being erotic nor shocking.

The murder investigation is not given an awful lot of screen time, and whilst I understand why, I found it rather frustrating that the case failed to give some insight to the relationship story.  I also hated the fact that the final solution to the crime was given to us via an unearned flashback, rather than an organic discovery as part of the films storytelling progression.

There is a final reel twist which suffers the same fault, and worse, we really never get to see the effects of the twist on one of the parties involved.

I realise I am not giving this film the greatest of reviews, and this is probably because it is not the greatest of films.  However, it is not without merit.

All three female actresses, including the prime suspect Kyeong-hie  (Seong Hyeon-a), are extremely watchable.   Lee Eun-ju is simply amazing, giving a depth and range that seems to escape Han Suk-kyu in the scenes they share together.

There are a couple of really quite smart scene changes that give the direction a sheen of class – one in particular where Ki-hoon lays back in Ga-hee’s bed to have a post coital cigarette, only for him to finish it in Su-hyeon’s.

And then there is the final set-piece.   The final 15 minutes of the film are spent with Ki-hoon and Ga-hee locked in the trunk of his car.  It is emotional and tense.  It is bloody and tragic.  It provides the shocks and controversy the rest of the movie has tried to provide.  It is actually rather brilliant, and is completely wasted as part of this movie.

In summary, we have a movie tinged with tragedy, that tries so hard, but eventually falls well short.  Watch it for the performances.  Watch it for one scene of brilliance.  Just don’t expect it to thrill and entertain half as much as the film thinks it can.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hmm actually Lee Eun-ju's approach in the role is acting for the camera, which she does quite well projecting lots of charisma and insouciant sex appeal, petulant glamor. Han Suk-kyu acts amongst an ensemble, which is steering the core of a scene and catching his costars as safety net so they can be free to experiment (this is true with Lee's scenes. You can see this in the behind-scenes clips on DVD, in the way they rehearse, where he must guide Lee's performance so it stays on course of story and not just disintegrate into intense freak-outs.) He rather guides the uncomfortable tension with wife and photo-shop lady, alternately as overbearing/hypocritically caring, or a creepy cop authority. it's far more subtle than most catch, because he acts to have effect on costars, not just to draw audience to him – which is unnecessary in this film, because the cop is meant to be a “moral lesson by negative example”. we in the “West” may be over-tired with such bourgeois chauvinist characters typified by Mike Douglas, but adultery and male entitlement is rampant problem of hypocrisy in Korean society.

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  2. ElPeevio says:

    Anonymous – thankyou for taking time to leave a comment – it means a lot to me that you took the time to do so. I take your point about Han Suk-kyu's acting skill – possibly I was so enamoured by the performances of the females I have done his role a disservice. I think you are saying his performance acts as a catalyst for those around him, and I can accept this. As I think you will see from the post about “Christmas In August” and the next post (I'll leave you in suspense about what it is) I am a fan of his work.

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