Adapted from a Korean folk tale and starting off as a softly lensed romantic melodrama, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Scarlet Innocence, the latest work from noted visual stylist Yim Pil-sung, must be primed for a local audience. Yet this surprising genre-bending effort, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, holds off from showing its true colors until it has lulled you into a comfortable reverie. A successful exercise in subverting expectations, Scarlet Innocence may also prove a watershed moment for Yim, an acclaimed director whose high profile and gorgeously designed works have so far failed to translate into box office returns.
Following a scandal involving a younger student, Hak-kyu, a young and dashing literature professor, retreats to the countryside, where he teaches night classes while he waits for his reinstatement. During this forced sojourn, which he fills with writing and lonely drinking, Hak-kyu falls into a passionate affair with Deok-hee, an innocent girl 20 years his junior. The only problem is that he has left a sick wife and neglected daughter back home in Seoul and when his suspension has been lifted, he realizes that some of his actions while away will not be undone so easily.
Introducing us to a humble community and its handsome new visitor, Yim elegantly sets up the basis for a romance with a lyrical and finely crafted mise-en-scene that is a cut above what we would normally expect from the genre. Combined with the clear presence and kinetic chemistry of its leads, Scarlet Innocence starts off as an intoxicating melodrama but it doesn't take long for Yim to up the ante by turning a sweet (albeit forbidden) flirtation into a torrid sexual affair, and the stakes only rise from there when the plot takes some big twists.
Following the abrupt end of the romance and a dark event at home, the story jumps a few years into the future, when Hak-kyu begins to lose his sight and Deok-hee comes back into his life as a markedly changed woman. Sex, excess, depression and violence all dangerously mingle into a tempestuous thrill ride that takes its cue from the old Korean tale 'The Story of Shimcheong', turning it on its head and recasting it as a pitch black tale of cyclical greed and revenge.
Scarlet Innocence thrills with unexpected curves but also surprises with revelatory turns from veteran heartthrob Jung Woo-sung and new face on the block Esom. Ever since his breakout in 1997's Beat, Jung has been one of the most sought after faces in Korean cinema. Always playing quiet and often romantic leads, he has excelled at capturing women's hearts while not always winning over critics. He stepped out of his comfort zone last year as a cool villain in Cold Eyes (invited to Toronto in 2013), but he gives his most layered performance yet in this latest role, by both embracing the image he's carefully cultivated over the years and deconstructing it, as he exposes a selfish and destructive personality under his cool and collected exterior.
Just as, if not more formidable, is young starlet Esom, shining with a beguiling and convincing duality in her first lead role following a slew of supporting parts over the last few years. Starting off as a sweet and naïve country girl who quickly becomes aware of her rampant sexuality in some very risqué scenes, Esom already delivers an engaging performance before her character arc takes an abrupt shift. Stripped of her innocence yet still vulnerable, Esom impresses as an unusually layered femme fatale in the film's second half.
With the ambitious genre films Antarctic Journal (2005) and Hansel and Gretel (2007), Yim Pil-sung positioned himself as a modern master of the visual medium with works that featured both stunning mise-en-scene and an astute understanding of how film language works. Not only do his films look good, they have a remarkable cinematic flow. Yet, for many, the languorous exactitude of Antarctic Journal and the prismatic décor of Hansel and Gretel relegated his narratives and characters to a secondary tier. In the seven years since his last film, though he directed much of 2012's sci-fi omnibus Doomsday Book, the filmmaker seems to have taken note by opting to draw in spectators first and foremost with story in Scarlet Innocence before allowing his arsenal of film techniques to gradually blossom as the narrative progresses.
Though I would count myself among the more fervent supporters of his earlier films, I'm glad to see that Yim has chosen a different tack for his latest work, which should be more palatable to a wider audience without sacrificing his visual flair. Sporting a pair of terrific turns from Jung Woo-sung and Esom in a story that stealthily sidles through genres, Scarlet Innocence is a stylish neo film noir with a distinct Korean flavor.
This review also appeared on Twitchfilm.com
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