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Moody `Scarlet Letter' Turns Into a Hard Read

2004/10/28 Source

By Joon Soh
Staff Reporter

"Chuhung Kulsi (The Scarlet Letter)" is a moody thriller that marks the return of actor Han Suk-kyu to the screen. In truth, the actor, who is most famous for starring in the hit film "Shiri", made his return last year from his four-year hiatus, but "Ijung Kanchop (Comrade)" seems to have slipped from everyone's minds lately.

In his new film, Han plays the arrogant and sexist detective Ki-hun, an alpha male reminiscent of Michael Douglas in "Basic Instinct". And the film itself is a lot like that 1992 erotic thriller in mood and feel, with a similar but always-intriguing combination of sex and murder.

What the film doesn't have is the classic femme fatale like Sharon Stone's ... Instead, "Letter's" director Daniel H. Byun surrounds Ki-hun with a trio of beauties, each bringing a different dynamic to the detective's life and to the film.

In Su-hyon (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hun has the seemingly perfect and obedient wife. But at the same time, the detective is carrying on a steamy affair with Ka-hui, a sultry jazz singer at a nightclub who is in many ways the opposite of his wife, a classical musician.

Added to the mix is Kyong-hi (Sung Hyun-ah), the wife of a murder victim whose case Ki-hun is investigating. The murder seems to have a basis in adultery, a possible parallel to the detective's own life.

For most of the film, each of the detective's relationships seem to exist side by side but separately from one another. The stories do overlap at times, but not enough to become the focus of the narrative. The result is a collage effect, making the discrepancies all the more potent.

And it's to the film's credit that it's able to sustain the mood without having a true central narrative. Instead, the film floats along in a smoky sensual haze that's filled more with pathos than tension. Particularly potent is Ki-hun's ongoing affair with his mistress.

But at some point, the movie has to come down to earth and come up with an ending and that's where it gets into trouble. At the last third of the film, "Letter" throws in a plot twist that's comparable to the one in "Old Boy" in its bizarreness. The film's unexpected development is gut-wrenching and does work on a visceral level, but the viewer will have a difficult time getting over its seeming randomness in relation to the rest of the film.

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