Review: The Scarlet Letter (2004)

Directed by:
Cast: , , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre thought that Hell was being locked in a room for eternity with your friends, but as Lister from Red Dwarf pointed out, all his mates were French. Director Byun seems to believe that Hell consists of being brought face to face with the consequences of one’s actions, and for some that’s far more scary. We all have things that we don’t want to face, although we probably don’t expect the consequences to be as icky as the ones at the end of this film.

This is a morality play, pure and simple. The murder investigation, supposedly the centrepiece of the plot, feels like a distraction, and certainly doesn’t contribute to the finale. The central theme is the sexual indiscretions of the main character, played by Han Suk-gyu, and his attempts to have his cake and eat it too. We see him flounder around, indulging in prurient speculation about the grieving widow, and spending most of his time either placating his wife or having soulful sex with his girlfriend.

I really wanted to like this film. Han Suk-gyu and Lee Eun-joo are both talented performers, and the plot outline offered so much scope. Sadly, this scope was frittered away in a number of ways. The most distracting was the lack of consistency: is it a murder mystery? Is it a romance? Is it a drama? Is it a thriller? About all we can say for certain is that it isn’t a sea shanty.

I was also irritated by the use of female stereotypes. Perhaps the director was aiming at the less cerebral end of the market, but the comparison of pristine, classical musician wife with ‘bad girl’ jazz-singing girlfriend was as subtle as a sledgehammer, and just as enjoyable. I could almost hear my cranky great-aunt whispering “She’ll come to a bad end, that one, just you wait and see.”

But the part that really stuck in my craw was the grand finale. Very grand it was indeed, but also very much of an endurance test. Without giving too much away, I can only say that I was screaming at the screen things like “What sort of an idiot would shut the boot?” and other such imprecations. My enjoyment of a film is dependent on my ability to believe in the characters and their situations, and this went off my credibility scale. I’m no stranger to pathological mental states, and these characters (or more accurately, this character) shouldn’t have been allowed to wander around loose. If they’d declared themselves to be a teapot it would at least have been amusing.

If you want to judge my judgements, you will of course have to see it for yourself. But even though you may disagree with my prior complaints, you will have to agree that this final scene committed the cardinal sin of drama: it went on way too long. It also went way too far, practically wallowing. I find this interesting, largely in comparison to Old Boy. Both have an intensely emotive scene near the end, and I’ve read a number of criticisms of Choi’s performance suggesting that he was overdoing it. I found his performance credible and compelling, whereas this one just makes me cranky. The difference, for me, lies in the fact that Old Boy created a train of events that culminated in the final sequence, and the situation was suitably shocking. Like a classic tragedy, the crisis is inescapable. In The Scarlet Letter, the situation could have easily been avoided if only some fool hadn’t shut the damn boot!

5 shamefully wasted character actors out of 10.
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