The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Byeon Hyeok, 2004)

The Scarlet Letter posterSouth Korea has long had a reputation for being among the most conservative of East Asian nations, perhaps because of a strong Christianising influence, but even so the fact that adultery was only fully decriminalised in 2015 is something of a surprise. Ironically enough the legislation was enacted in the defence of women who enjoyed few legal rights and would be left destitute if their husbands left them, suffering not only the humiliation and social stigma of divorce but also having no independent income and very little possibility of gaining one. Nevertheless it quickly became another tool of social control, branding “harlots” rather than protecting “wives”. Byeon Hyeok’s The Scarlet Letter (주홍글씨, Juhong Geulshi) was released in 2004, which is a whole decade before adultery was removed from the statue books, and draws inspiration from the book of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne in which a young woman becomes a social outcast after giving birth to an illegitimate child.

Cocksure policeman Ki-hoon (Han Suk-kyu) lives in a world of his own dominion. Married to the elegant concert cellist Su-hyun (Uhm Ji-won), Ki-hoon is also carrying on an affair with the bohemian nightclub singer Ga-hee (Lee Eun-ju). One fateful day he is called to the scene of a bloody murder. The owner of a photographer’s studio has been found with half his head caved in and the prime suspect is his wife, Kyung-hee (Sung Hyun-ah), who found the body. Once she’s had some time to recover from the shock, Kyung-hee offers up some possible evidence regarding a local photographer who may have been semi-stalking her – something which had caused tension between herself and her husband. The photographer claims Kyung-hee asked him to take the photos, and others besides, but denies he was romantically interested in her or that the couple had been having an affair.

The murder case floats in the background as Ki-hoon’s personal life spirals ever more out of control. Both Su-hyun and Ga-hee are pregnant with his child and it seems inevitable the affair will be exposed. Ki-hoon fears this not out of guilt in causing emotional harm to one or both of his women, but out of a sense that it will be very annoying, inconvenient, and burdensome for him. When his wife does eventually confront him about the affair, Ki-hoon’s response is to ignore it and carry on as normal by acting excited about the baby as if to remind Su-hyun that she is already tied to him and it will be almost impossible for her to leave. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up Ga-hee whose mental state seems to be fracturing under the intense pressure of her need for Ki-hoon and his continuing disregard for the feelings of others.

Ki-hoon is a classic noir hero, wading into a morass of moral ambiguity and hurtling headlong towards an existential reckoning. A late, yet fantastically obvious, twist offers another perspective which the film has no time to expand on so caught up is it in the moral ruining of Ki-hoon in suggesting that oppressive social codes have in some way contributed to this intense situation, forcing three people into an uncomfortable love triangle where everyone has ended up with the wrong partner. Byeon does, however, choose to emphasise “morality” in lending a spiritual slant to Ki-hoon’s fall rather than choosing to attack the social oppression of Korea’s intensely conservative culture in which all the power was in Ki-hoon’s hands (even if he uses it to ruin himself, later left in a state of spiritual emptiness filled only with guilt and shame).

The reckoning comes in a literal evocation of Ki-hoon’s claustrophobic love life in which he finds himself trapped in an inescapable black hole, waiting to find out if he will be released or condemned to suffer an eternity of pain for his various transgressions. Byeon never quite manages to marry his higher purpose to the noir narrative, leaving his avant-garde final set piece out of place in an otherwise straightforward thriller while his final twist falls flat in retreading well worn genre cliches. Frank in terms of its depiction of sex and nudity, The Scarlet Letter takes on an anti-erotic quality, painting its various scenes of actualised sex as passionless acts of compulsion with only those of fantasy somehow imbued with colour and light though its melancholy conclusion suggests even these may carry a heavy price.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Won Shin-yeon, 2017)

memoir of a murderer posterMemory, particularly traumatic memory, coupled with the inability to overcome painful truths through the act of forgetting, has a become an essential part of Korean cinema. The “hero” at the centre of Won Shin-yeon’s Memoir of a Murderer (살인자의 기억법, Salinjaui Gieokbeob), adapted from the novel by Kim Young-Ha, literally cannot remember his past crimes – he is suffering from dementia possibly brought on by brain damage sustained in an accident 17 years previously. The inability to remember is not the same as forgetting, and forgetting is not the same as ignoring, but there are some truths so essential that a superficial inability to recall them does not destroy their power.

Byung-su (Sol Kyung-gu) was once a serial killer. That is to say, he was the “noble” kind of serial killer who only killed “bad” people (in his own moral judgment) such as instigators of domestic violence, heartless loan sharks, or people who harm animals. These days Byung-su is a successful vet living with his grown-up daughter, Eun-hee (Seol Hyun). Having recently confirmed that he has Alzheimer’s, the doctor says possibly a result of trauma from that earlier car crash, Byung-su does not know what to do for the best seeing as he’ll have to give up work. An unexpected collision with a young man in a swanky silver car, Min Tae-ju (Kim Nam-Gil), gives Byung-su something else to think about when he notices what looks like blood dripping from the boot. Locking eyes with the man in question, Byun-su knows instantly that Tae-ju is just like him – a killer, probably the man behind a series of unsolved murders. Byung-su might have let this go as a matter of professional courtesy were it not for a few nagging doubts – did Tae-ju see in him what he saw in Tae-ju, and if he did will Eun-hee, who is a perfect match with the currently known victims in the unsolved serial killing case, be in additional danger due to her father’s accidental encounter?

Then again, did any of that actually happen? Byung-su’s rapidly deteriorating memory cannot be relied upon. Perhaps there was no crash, perhaps there was no body or the body was that of a deer, perhaps Byung-su is simply mixing up his original car crash with something more metaphorical. In an effort to help him remember where he is, Eun-hee has given her father a dictaphone so he can leave himself messages of things he might forget – when he took his medication, places he needs to go, the names of people he met but can’t remember. Unbeknownst to her, Byung-su has already engaged himself in a wider program of remembering by trying to write down his own life story, including all the grisly details of his serial killing past, in a kind of memoir on his computer. Though Byung-su struggles to remember details or ensure he has everything clearly the way it really happened, muscle memory speaks for itself and his body will never forget its murderous past. Freed from the moderating force of Byung-su’s remaining humanity, Byung-su worries what his body may do on his behalf while his mind is absent.

Byung-su positions himself as morally good, believing that his mission of killing “bad” people is a kind of service to humanity. When he begins to doubt himself, that perhaps he is both the old serial killer and the new but has “forgotten” his most recent victims, his justification starts to fall apart. Almost a father and son, Byung-su and his suspect come from different generations and grew up in very different political and social circumstances, yet both carry the scars of domestic violence. Violent fathers beget violent sons yet Byung-su, he believes, has chosen a better path in ridding the world of bullies whereas his opposing number has chosen to blame the victim in preying on the weak.

Alzheimer’s leaves Byung-su permanently vulnerable, not least to self betrayal, rendering him unable to even recognise his enemy or remember why it was he seems to suspect him. Despite the inability to remember, Byung-su retains his instinctive suspicion of Tae-ju, but is unable to evade the possibility that his misgivings are a mix of self-projection and a more natural paternal wariness. His world is in constant shift between realities founded on imperfect memory. Not until he has faced the truth in all its ugliness can he hope to reorder his existence. The act of forgetting cannot solve all one’s problems – the absence of superficial pain merely provokes a kind of numbness while the root causes remain. Byung-su cannot kill the killer in himself, and is condemned to chase his own ghost through various unrealities until it finally catches up with him. Filled with (extremely) dark humour and oddly warm naturalistic detail, Memoir of a Murderer operates on a deeper level than it first might appear, stepping away from literal truths in favour of metaphorical ones but finding little of either.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles)