Police Captain Lee Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu
) is on his way to work when he receives the first call of the day. A grisly murder.
The owner of a photo studio has been killed, he's lying on the floor next to most of his brains. Blunt force trauma they call it. It was the wife, Ji Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah
) who found him, but she's sitting in the corner in shock, not much help to anyone. Later when Lee interviews her back at the station, she falls asleep in the interrogation room, while he's getting some coffee. They say only guilty persons fall asleep in police custody, so it pretty much goes without saying that something is not right here.
But Captain Lee has other things on his mind. That same evening he heads to a classy music club. A sultry singer, Ka-hee (Lee Eun-joo
), is on the stage in front of a captivated audience. When she notices him she pauses for a moment. The way she parts her lips says it all. Moments later they are locked in a heated embrace. The sex is good, but when he wakes up, he's in his own bed, and his wife Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won
) is in the kitchen making breakfast. She's pregnant. They're going to keep it.
It's a good system really. The wife is there for the official functions. She's there when he needs to pretend he's responsible, when he needs to have a place to come home to. The mistress is there for the late hours of the night, when he wants to unwind after a long day. She demands little, but gives everything, and most importantly, she let's him do things to her he can't do to the mother of his child. All in all Captain Lee is a perfectly content man.
That will change soon.
During the next couple of days the walls will begin to close in on Captain Lee's world. The investigation into the murder will go less than smooth. His wife will learn about his deceit, and he in turn will learn a terrible secret of hers. His mistress will ask him to re-evaluate their relationship, she'll ask for a commitment he can't give. He'll arrest the wrong man for the murder and make one crucial mistake that will end up costing someone their life.
Calling "Scarlet Letter" a grown-up version of "Basic Instinct" may not be an entirely fair description, because actually it has more in common with "Romeo is Bleeding", but the "Basic Instinct" reference gives you a good idea of what type of film we're dealing with. It's erotic, sexy, dangerous. On the surface, just a story a about a cop trying to solve a murder, but underneath this is really a story about temptation. It's about having your cake and eating it too.
Han Suk-kyu stars as Captain Lee. He also starred in the very popular crossover hit "Shiri" and "Tell Me Something". He took a break after those two films, and when he returned to the film business he was hungry for more challenging roles. He took the lead as the double agent in "Comrade", and now he's throwing everything he's got into this film. Captain Lee is an appalling character. He's the kind of guy who complements his own food, he grooms himself obsessively, always with particular attention to his hair, and he pays more attention to how fast he can assemble his gun than actual police work. He completely ignores other peoples emotions. "Did you kill your husband?" he blurts out, during his first interrogation of the wife.
In short, Captain Lee is a bastard, which of course is why it's particularly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance. As fate moves the pieces around on the board of life, we get to watch Lee squirm, and desperately try to keep his perfect life in check.
Like "Scarlet Letter" plays with the characters, it plays with the audience too. A scene is never just about one thing. Just as you think you've figured a scene out, it twists and suddenly it's about something else.
A good example of this is a scene where Captain Lee visits Ka-hee to make up with her, but she'll have none of it and before we know it their argument turns violent. Then suddenly she breaks down and they start to kiss. Next moment they're naked, and they're making love. The kind of angry bitter sex that only comes after a good fight. They confess their love for each other, and all the time she can't stop crying. Afterwards, when they share a quiet moment in the pool, he asks what she wants, and she simply says "just leave your heart with me". During the course of this scene the mood shifts several times, and we end up in a completely different place from where we began. Along the way unexpected things have been revealed, and as the characters lose themselves in each other, they end up saying more than they should. For a film that's just supposed to be about a murder, "Scarlet Letter" is often surprisingly deep.
"Scarlet Letter" also has an excellent sense of pacing, though the structure of the film is a little challenging. Generally the story develops in a pretty straight forward linear fashion, but occasionally the film throws us a curve ball in the form of an elegant shift in time or place. Captain Lee hands somebody a photo "What did you think when you saw that?" he asks, and when the person in front of him looks up to answer we're suddenly and seamlessly transported back to the situation in question. A person knocks on a door, another opens it, but they are not at the same door.
I love this way of telling a story, It's so rewarding to watch. It sucks you deeper into the film. because you're getting surprised along with the characters, and you struggle to make sense of the events, just as they do. If it's done right you won't be confused by anything unless it's on purpose, and "Scarlet Letter" does it just right. Actually I was more confused by the female characters. It took me a while to pin a name on each one of them (possibly due to the subtitles not mentioning their names). To top it off, there's a constant change of of hairstyles and dresses among these women, which didn't help at all.
One thing I've yet to mention is the third act, the final 20 minutes of the film. I'm not going to go into details, but suffice it to say that what happens here is a radical departure from the style of the rest of the film. Suddenly, almost without warning, something happens that turns the whole film into a circus of the macabre. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh or curl up with my fluffy penguin and muse on the cruel nature of the world.
The event that causes these mixed feelings is so ridiculous and yet so brutal that I'm still not sure how I feel about it. But I will say this, I guarantee that some viewers will feel so cheated that they stop the film, throw the DVD out of the window and forever curse the day they bought that piece of crap. Since I can't can't say more without spoiling something, this will have to constitute my warning.
Don't watch "Scarlet Letter" for the sex. This is not an erotic thriller, and we don't actually get to see "anything" during the sexy scenes. Don't watch it if you're looking for a murder mystery. The actual investigation into the murder takes up very little time in the story. Watch it only if you're interested in a complex drama that shares a few elements with the genres mentioned above. This is really a film about fate, how we're all victims of it, how we can't control it despite our best efforts. It's cruel game and fate will always win.
"Scarlet Letter" is the last film from actress Lee Eun-joo. On February 22nd, she was found dead by her older brother. She had hung herself. Why such a beautiful and promising girl would have any reason to kill herself we may never know. It was with a heavy heart I re-watched the film. It's tempting to overanalyse, but one has to wonder if the sadness Eun-joo brings to her character comes from the same place that caused her to kill herself. "Scarlet Letter" is a fine farewell to this beauty, who brought a unique tenderness to every role I've seen her in. It's testament to the fact that if things had turned out differently, she would have given us many good film-experiences in the future. Sadly that wasn't in the cards. Perhaps the deck was stacked. Fate will do that sometimes.