I'm a confessed Asian film addict. I'd say that over half my DVD collection is comprised of releases from the East. Whether Japanese, Chinese, Korean or even Thai, it just seems like the world of Asian cinema is so much more exciting and invigorated than the generic product Hollywood has been releasing. My interest started with Martial Arts and Samurai films, progressing into the seedy Hong Kong underworld of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark then bearing witness to the amazing Horror output of the last decade with the odd comedy strewn here and there. However, it seems that even the typical "Lifetime" adultery drama, that most reviled of film genres can be shown in a new perspective.
While it might be unfair of me to add the "Lifetime" stigma to this genre, I know that there have been several notable films with this theme including Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction and even Unfaithful. It just seems to me that every time I'm surfing my cable channels the Lifetime Network is showing yet another one of these terrible, made-for-television, man-bashing morality tales. While "Juhong Geulshi" a.k.a. The Scarlet Letter may one day turn up on "Lifetime" (yeah, right) it is a mature, intense and challenging work with, sadly, lasting repercussions in the real world.
Its been ages since I read Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," but I remembered enough to know what I might be in for from this Korean import. While certain themes are present keeping with the movie's namesake, it bears little resemblance to Hester Prynne's tale and, thankfully, even less to Demi Moore's dreadful 1995 film of the same name. I'd just like to take a moment to remind everyone that when asked if it was inappropriate to change Hawthorne's original ending in favor of a happier one, Moore said that it was okay because "…not many people have read the book." It was the stunning triumvirate of The Scarlet Letter, Striptease and G.I. Jane that helped to reduce Moore to designing costumes for a regional theater company. Of course she has since rebounded into the spotlight with an inspired turn in the uninspired sequel Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (I still have no idea what that title means) and hooked up with the boy toy of the millennium, Ashton "Punk'd" Kutcher.
Korean superstar Han Suk-kyu stars as Ki-hoon, a police captain who onn the surface appears to be a good man, but has a darker side too. It seems that he likes to have his cake and eat it too, which is ironic since he's investigating a woman whose affair may have led to her oaf of a husband's death. She is the prime suspect and his ongoing investigation reveals that she may have had her husband killed in order to be able to run away with her lover. This murder investigation is just the subplot, as the real meat of The Scarlet Letter is about how Ki-hoon deals with the news that both his wife and his lover, who also happens to be his wife's best friend, are both pregnant with his child. There are certain parallels and ironies between Ki-hoon's case and life that director, Byun Hyuk, highlights, but ultimately his inexperience hurts what could have been a masterpiece.
Still, there is something utterly compelling about director Byun Hyuk's The Scarlet Letter, even if it fails to satisfy in the end. The Scarlet Letter was only his third, and apparently, final film. The casting of Han Suk-kyu and Lee Eun-ju as the ill-fated lovers is ultimately what saves the film and elevates it to well above average. The scenes between these two are heartbreaking, and the third act is one of the most unusual and intense I think I've seen in a long time. Definitely not for the faint of heart, or the claustrophobic, it asks a lot from the audience, but is actually a make or break moment in the film. Personally, it was the third act that makes me recommend it at all.
Dark, depressing with no clear-cut answers, The Scarlet Letter certainly won't be for everyone. Adding yet another layer of… just what exactly, I'm not sure, but the beautiful and talented actress, Lee Eun-ju, committed suicide shortly after the filming. There has been much speculation as to why she chose to take her own life, there was apparently no note left at the scene, and I'm not about to speculate here. However, the place that she had to go as an actress to for this performance couldn't have been too happy and if she did die as a result of her art, than this film is even more haunting.
Picture: The film is presented in a 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It looks absolutely amazing, with beautifully shot scenes of love and death.
Audio: The Korean Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Track (w/English subs) sounds great. Ki-hoon's wife and lover are both musicians and there is a fair amount of soundtrack music that is crucial to maintaining the film's mood throughout.
Extras: Included as Extras on this DVD are Interviews with the film's stars (Han Suk-kyu, Lee Eun-joo and Uhm Ji-won), Behind-the-scenes of the poster photo shoot, footage from the film's premiere at the Pusan International Film Festival and the Original Theatrical Trailer.
Conclusion: The film's downward spiral of loss and betrayal coupled with the real-life tragedy of its leading lady make this a powerful experience. While it's true that the leads buoy the film to great extent with their intensely emotional performances, but ultimately it's the director's inexperience that hurts this film the most. Still, there is a great film lurking beneath the obvious flaws, and for the right kind of viewer, The Scarlet Letter could be a moving and unforgettable film. It's a lot like life; beautiful but banal, sexy yet staid, compelling, convoluted and Recommended.