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Original Title:
Juhong geulshi

South Korea 2004

Thriller, Drama

Byun Hyuk

Han Suk-kyu
Lee Eun-joo
Uhm Ji-won
Sung Hyun-ah
Ahn Jae-hong
Kim Jin-geun

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The Scarlet Letter

Story: In a photo studio a man ist found with his skull smashed. Police Captain Lee Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) is in charge of the investigation and soon has a suspect: the wife Ji Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah). She didn't only find the dead body of her husband, but there are also several clues that she might have had an affair.
Meanwhile, Lee has also some other problems. His wife Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), a renowned cellist, is pregnant. Although he doesn't want to put his ideal family world on the line, he can't end his affair with the former schoolmate and friend of his wife Ka-hee (Lee Eun-joo). He loves both and as Ka-hee in the beginning has no problems to "share" Lee with his wife, Ki-hoon does lead a pleasant double life.
As it was bound to happen sooner or later, Su-hyun eventually learns of her husband's affair and wants a divorce. Ka-hee also wants Lee to think over their relationship. Besides his own personal problems, Ki-hoon also makes only slow progress concerning the murder case.

Review: Being mislead by the cover and the title I expected "The Scarlet Letter" to be another Korean rom-com or at least a romantic drama. Far from it! In fact, we get an exceptionally good thriller/drama composition. As far as the thrill is kept up the whole movie through, the movie yet can't please genrefans as a typical thriller. At first, we think that the focus of the story is on the murder case, but soon we get to know better, being involved in the personal drama of Lee which he did call upon him himself. The murder case becomes a subplot and only serves the purpose to build a bridge between Ji Kyung-hee and Lee. Parallels between the actions of them are shown, and the motive of temptation connects them.

The plot about the murder is told rather linearly, but is often and for quite some long time interrupted by the main story around Lee and his women. Actually, that's not that annoying as we already know soon enough that the movie isn't about the murder. In this aspect the predictable conclusion at the end isn't disappointing neither.

The actual story evolves around Lee and his two women. We find out that Lee is a person who really cares about his looks and although he is a affiable guy, there is some hidden arrogance to be found in his character. Small details, like his little games of how fast he can take apart his gun and reassemble it again show that his police work isn't something he cares about. It's more like his work is a way for him to flee his personal problems. To a even greater degree its his ambitions, that made him captain, eventually.
His marriage he values a lot, even though it lacks some passion. This he gets from his mistress Ka-hee, a pianist. She doesn't demand much and nevertheless gives him everything he wants. The scenes between Lee and Ka-hee set the stage for some hot explicit sexscenes, though in the end we don't get to see anything at all, not even Ka-hee topless.

The moments between Ki-hoon and Ka-hee are full of emotions. Here an emotional roller coaster of anger, sorrow, envy and love is celebrated and this in just a few minutes. Special credits go to Lee Eun-joo, who manages with her portrayel of Ka-hee to outshine everyone else. Which is, because of the general suberb acting in the movie, quite some effort. She plays every outburst of emotion in a very believable way, imbueing her character with much in-depth.
Han Suk-kyu, among others known for his role in "Shiri", also gives an impressive performance and makes the best of his role. No wonder as "The Scarlet Letter" has mainly been made as a comeback-movie for him. Thanks to him, we get to know a person you can't really hate for his actions, even though you have to feel content when eventually everything gets back at him and he gets what he deserves.

Director Byun Hyuk's film is produced very well and visually shines with a great picture. Additionally, the soundtrack is also very fitting, accompanying the movie with mostly known classical pieces.
Huyk proves not only to have a sense for good pacing, but also pleases the viewer with great sets and very well done camera shots. Due to lots of twists the viewer's interest is always kept up. If you do expect it the least there is a new revelation and we get surprised for another time after that. Most of the time this is done with a great blending between the present and the past, which are done very fluently, and yet aren't irritating or confusing at all. There are also some "cuts" into the future, e.g. when Ka-hee spends the night with Lee, then gets up to vanish into another room, Lee throws himself onto bed again and suddenly there is his wife next to him. This way of storytelling, together with the carefully composed pictures gives the movie something special.

Apart from the good dialogues, which show that "The Scarlet Letter" is more intellectual than one would have thought in the beginning, some nice character drawings, lots of entanglements and twists, the movie also builds up a high tension with its great atmosphere. We are really interested how this drama might end and which decision will eventually be made by the different persons.
The last half hour of the movie depicts a stark contrast to the more or less tranquil rest of the movie, which by far won't work for everyone. Without spoiling anything, at first you can't decide if you are supposed to laugh or cry because of the scene's absurdity. Nonetheless, soon enough everything turns out to become a gripping, nerve-splitting climax, that gives the two main actors the opportunity to give it their best. Fans of psychological thrillers will applaud with "joy".

"The Scarlet Letter" is a drama that is told in great pictures having lots of thriller influences and containing a pinch of erotic. The well done rare and subtle use of brutality, along with the tense atmosphere can be quite disturbing.
The tension and the story will get you gripped until the very end, pulling you into a world that is about tempatation, absolution and love. The impressive work of the actors add to the fact that the movie will stay in your head for a long time even after the ending credits. For fans of intelligent drama/thrillers this one is a must-see!

(Author: Manfred Selzer)

Afterword: Every time an actress impresses me as much as Lee Eun-joo did as Ka-hee, I do some research on the person itself. With grief I had to find out, that "The Scarlet Letter" is the last work which Lee participated in.
Lee Eun-joo committed suicide in her apartment in Seongnam City on February, 22th 2005. Only 25 years old, a good looking and very talented actress leaves this world, who surely would have made future impact in some great movies. Why someone who besides her acting skills did even have a great talent for singing and playing the piano has to leave this world so soon, will most likely remain a mystery. It is said that she suffered severe depression, because her parents were angry of her "explicit" sexscenes in "The Scarlet Letter"...
Anyway, this gives her last movie a bitter taste.
Nevertheless, "The Scarlet Letter" is a worthy cinematic farewell to her.
May Lee Eun-joo rest in peace...

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