January 2, 2016

The Scarlet Letter: Extramarital Insanity

I first started watching Korean movies in 2004 when I covered the Fifth Annual New York Korean Film Festival, during which I saw more than a couple of movies that totally blew my mind. That was, for me, a year of embarrassing riches: Save the Green Planet, Memories of Murder, Oldboy, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring were all in the festival lineup. But there's another movie from '03 that I saw back then and that I've often omitted when reflecting on the start of my obsession with Korean cinema: Byun Hyuk's The Scarlet Letter, which strikes me now as every bit as psychologically devastating and calculatingly violent as any of the previously mentioned movies.

Perhaps my omission stems from the fact that the movie was in the subsequent year's festival (which I also covered). Perhaps it's because so much of The Scarlet Letter, while, exquisitely executed, feels at first to be simply, a really great thriller. Will detective Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) discover whether or not photoshop owner Kyeong-hie (Seong Hyeon-a) bashed in her husband's head? Will Ki-hoon's wife (Uhm Ji-won) uncover the affair he's having with her best friend from college, Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju)? It's all beautifully shot, written, paced, and acted but it's not until a late-in-the-game narrative free-fall that we're suddenly in the midst of something truly remarkable. The husband's death is revealed to be rife with complications; the affair, rooted in deception, turns extremely horrific when the two cheaters get trapped in the trunk of a car during a prank. Both Han and Lee turn in unforgettable performances, that will linger in your mind longer than you'd like them to. Illuminated by a lighter and confined to a space barely bigger than a coffin, their characters seem to exist in some weird existential no-man's-land that resurrects all past sins and promises no sure forgiveness. Han has never been better while Lee, sadly, committed suicide shortly thereafter. As final performances go, it's a stunner.

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