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'The Scarlet Letter' trains microscope on sexual desire

2004/10/30 | 444 views |  | Permalink | Source

What is love? It's an amusing question that often has no satisfying answer, at least not for a man who has to deal with three fatally attractive women at the same time.
In "The Scarlet Letter", Ki-hoon (Han Seok-Kyu) is a ranking detective who seems to get everything he wants. He has a beautiful, kind-hearted wife, who is also a famous cellist. He has a secret lover who sings sultry songs at a jazz cafe and satisfies his sexual needs whenever and wherever possible. And he is pretty good at nabbing Bad Guys involved with the occasional homicide cases.

Ki-hoon's character, however, is more of a puzzle than he lets on. In a way, he represents uninhibited narcissism that defines success-oriented, affluent people. He enjoys grandiose operas in his luxury sedan on the way to a crime scene, showing off his rather "classic" taste. But then he eats a piece of candy, gnashing his teeth together, while looking at a smashed head of a murder victim.

Ki-hoon is also meeting his secret lover and then rushing home to cook for his pregnant wife to show his sweetness and loyal side. This dual life is certainly dangerous, but Ki-hoon believes his almost unlimited abilities and equally plentiful resourcefulness will see him through to the end of the day.

All the seemingly confidence-building facets of Ki-hoon's life, however, begin to crumble when he encounters a mysteriously attractive widow.

The woman named Kyung-hee (Seong Hyeon-ah) is a prime suspect for a murder case: her husband, a photo studio owner, suffers a terrible death. She denies any wrongdoing, but Ki-hoon believes he smells something fishy about her.

He figures Kyung-hee was not on good terms with her husband, and plans to probe deeper into the suspect's real motive. It turns out that the dead husband wanted to have a child, but Kyung-hee secretly had an abortion, confirming his suspicion.

Ironically, Ki-hoon happens to know that his pure-hearted wife, Su-hyun (Um Ji-won) did the same, secret abortion during their "happy" marriage life. Even worse, his lover Ka-hee (Lee Eun-joo) notifies him that she is pregnant with his baby.

In fact, Su-hyun and Ka-hee are close friends. At a party to celebrate a successful Cello performance of Su-hyun, Ka-hee puts enormous pressure on Ki-hoon, now asking to be more than just his secret lover. She wants to monopolize Ki-hoon's love and go beyond their limits in their illicit relationship.

Even the murder case gets out of control. Witnesses offer conflicting testimonies, making it tricky to identify who is the real murderer. From this point on, the movie goes into a mystery thriller direction.

Ki-hoon, now desperate to save his dualistic life, does whatever necessary to get things under his control. Strangely, he succumbs to his uncontrollable sexual fantasies even when he should be focusing on work.

Ki-hoon's travails symbolize a fundamental question about human desire. Why do human beings feel greater pleasure and satisfaction when they are knowingly engaging in Forbidden Love and lust? Should self-destruction always be a fitting consequence even if something more than sexual desire is involved?

Director Byun Hyuck portrays inherently vulnerable human beings in a meticulous style that can provoke overwhelming emotional responses from both mainstream moviegoers and fickle film critics.

Han's performance is solid and impressive. This undisputedly top-rated actor suffered a humiliating box-office failure two years ago in "Double Agent". Some critics even questioned whether Han would be able to pull off a comeback. But his charismatic acting in "The Scarlet Letter" proves that he is still at the top of his game as one of the most celebrated actors in Korea.

Lee Eun-joo also demonstrates her versatility. She is already an A-level actress here but her audacious acting in this provocative film suggests she has greater potential than previously thought.

In fact, Ka-hee's character is as multi-faceted as that of Ki-hoon. She screams fiery words toward her lover when she feels frustrated. Seconds later, she steps forward and kisses the man passionately. She sees the destructive nature of their secret relationship, but she keeps going forward.

Back to the question about love, the movie does not offer a satisfying answer. Perhaps, it is foolish to ask such question in the first place when sexual desire takes over.

By Yang Sung-jin

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