Scarlet Innocence (마담 뺑덕)

Scarlet Innocence (마담 뺑덕)

Due to a scandalous issue at university, literature professor Hak-gyu (Jeong Woo-seong (정우성) is forced to relocate to the countryside while an investigation transpires. Arriving at a small village, he begins reluctantly teaching the elderly residents, and in becoming acquainted with his new surroundings Hak-gyu meets young and innocent fairground operator Deokee (Esom (이솜). Although married and a father, Hak-gyu begins a steamy, passionate affair with Deokee, yet when a surprise phone call alerts him that the scandal has ended he returns home, abandoning his new mistress. Years later, as his sight begins to dissipate, the ramifications of Hak-gyu’s selfish past deeds come back to haunt him.

While in exile, literature professor Hak-gyu meets innocent Deokee

While in exile, literature professor Hak-gyu meets innocent Deokee

Scarlet Innocence is a reimagining of the classic Korean folk fable Shim-cheong, in which a daughter sacrifices herself at sea in order for her blind father to regain his sight. Director Lim Pil-seong (임필성) and screenwriter Jang Yoon-mi (장윤미) update the tragic filial piety story into a modern tale of lust and revenge, spurred by questions about how the motivations of the original characters developed. The revised story, with the addition of sexual promiscuity, themes of revenge and the gangster underworld, bares little more than a passing metaphoric resemblance to the original tale to the point where it’s surprising Shim-cheong is referenced as inspiration at all. Yet that aside, while Scarlet Innocence is competently produced and sports fine performances from leads Jeong Woo-seong and Esom, the erotic thriller consistently feels rushed and unfinished both narratively and directorially.

The film opens with Hak-gyu journeying to the countryside to endure his time in exile. The cinematography is a visual treat through the recurring motif of blooming cherry blossom trees and quaint rural landscapes, yet rather than employing additional cinematic cues to convey the professor’s angst a voice-over is incorporated to explain the premise. The unnecessary device is utilised at several junctures throughout the film to clarify certain situations yet rather than illuminate, it serves merely to draw audiences out of the story. Scarlet Innocence improves greatly however upon Hak-gyu’s arrival, where his frustrations and dispute with the university are articulate well through tantalizing hints that allude to his precarious situation. The development of Hak-gyu’s relationship with Deokee also begins well, largely due to Esom’s wonderfully charismatic performance as an innocent girl enamored with an older sophisticated gentleman. A scene in which she is almost hypnotised by Hak-gyu’s hand as it moves over a desk is impressively constructed, conveying intense, palpable sexual desire.

Hak-gyu and Deaokee begin a passionate affair

Hak-gyu and Deokee begin a passionate affair, arousing gossip in the village

Unfortunately however the development from such moments to explicit sexual scenes lacks the impetus to make the affair compelling, as the relationship jumps from a stolen kiss to impersonal sex on a ferris wheel, and beyond. Much has been made of the intimate sequences, so much so that the film has rather unfairly acquired a reputation for it, yet the erotic moments, while featuring plenty of exposure, contain a shortage of both sincerity and passion particularly when contrasted with the year’s other erotic drama Obsessed. This is not so much due to the actors, both of whom are impressive in conveying their psychology through their bodies, but rather the need for greater prior development and intensity between them which another script rewrite would ultimately correct. That said, the issues that later lead to Hak-gyu and Deokee’s separation are dramatic and effective, culminating in an absorbing climax.

Yet from such engaging material the narrative jumps eight years into the future, not only undermining the previous tension but also generating the sense that Scarlet Innocence is actually two shorter films tenuously stitched together. This is achieved through the focus on Hak-gyu’s descent into drink, gambling and debauchery, as well as the return of Deokee as a cliched femme fatale and her highly implausible plans to exact revenge. The inclusion of Hak-gyu’s daughter Cheong-ee (Park So-yeong (박소영) to the proceedings is also a misstep due to her woeful underdevelopment, despite the original fable primarily based on her character. The sexual politics are also frankly awful throughout, notably the fixation on high heels as empowering yet inherently evil, while the inclusion of the criminal underworld is at odds with everything that came before. As such Scarlet Innocence evolves from a mild-mannered erotic drama to a cliched crime thriller, resulting in a film that, despite its potential, is entertaining yet quite underwhelming.

Years after their affair, Deokee returns for revenge

Years after their affair, Deokee returns to exact a unique brand of revenge

Verdict:

Based loosely on the classic fable Shim-cheong, Scarlet Innocence is an updated version featuring erotically charged scenes and themes of revenge. Director Lim Pil-seong competently helms the drama, particularly in the early stages, while actors Jeong Woo-seong and Esom provide fine performances. Yet the film consistently feels rushed and unfinished both narratively and directorially while the second half of the drama descends into implausible cliched territory. As such Scarlet Innocence is entertaining, yet quite underwhelming.

★★★☆☆

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