Back in 2007, after debuting with the star-studded dud “Antarctic Journal”, director Yim Pil-sung adapted the popular Brothers Grimm story “Hansel and Gretel” into an excellent atmospheric and moody horror film by the same name. The film is still considered among the finest that Korean horror cinema has to offer and things were looking rosy for the sophomore director. It wasn’t, however, until 7 years later, that he would get to direct another feature length film. The film had quite a buzz around it, not least because of the director but also for featuring the pairing of superstar Jung Woo-sung with up-and-coming actress Esom in her first leading role, a role that got her nominated for five different Best New Actress Awards, winning one.
After a sexual harassment case, professor Shim Hak-kyu is forced to leave his depressed wife and daughter Chungee and move to a sleepy countryside village to work teaching literary writing to older-age people, as he awaits the verdict of the investigation of his employers. Here, he meets young and naive Doekee, who works at the local funfair and cares for her deaf and mute mother and immediately falls for the handsome newcomer. A whirlwind romance ensues, which evolves into obsessive love for Doekee, and tongues in the village start wagging, until the university’s investigation absolves Hak-kyu of any wrongdoing and he leaves the town. His efforts to break up with the resolute Doekee end in tragedy for both his and Doekee’s family.
Cut to 8 years later, Hak-kyu is now a bestselling novelist who finds pleasure at the bottom of the bottle, at the gambling table and in bed with random women. His only oasis in life is Chungee, his daughter and his writing, which he is having a hard time at because of his failing vision, which is eroding fast. It is not long after that trouble literally moves in next door, in the form of a mysterious woman who Chungee instantly connects with and takes a liking to.
For his follow-up to “Hansel and Gretel”, Yim Pil-sung yet again turned to folklore, this time adapting the Korean folktale “Shim Chung” and weaving a longer tale around it. The earlier part is set up as a melodrama as the two characters meet, fall in love/lust and have a tragic heartbreak, and is where the film is at its most engrossing. The events surrounding their chance meeting, their coming together and the subsequent events that follow right up until their tragic breakup are believable and empathetic. One also needs to address the sex scenes in the film, of which there are a few, mostly in the first half. The scenes are designed to titillate and are largely successful in doing so. It helps that the actors involved in the scenes are extremely good-looking, but Lee Sung-jae’s intimate cinematography and Mowg’s background score also score brownie points in elevating the scenes and in turn the film itself.
For the latter half, the film shifts gear drastically as what was a tender love story and a melodrama becomes a revenge one. This is where the majority of “Shim Chung” is adapted for screen and also where the film falters the most. As revenge begets revenge, the circumstances and the characters’ actions start becoming increasingly farfetched and a film that was until this point seeped in honesty and realism becomes frustratingly the opposite. The gambling aspect of the film is laughably cliched and just not used effectively, leaving the character of Chungee, who is mostly in play for the latter half underdeveloped, her resurgence in the final act only slightly redeeming it.
Even before the cinematography and the music, the film’s biggest asset is its lead pair of actors. Jung Woo-sung consistently pushes out of his comfort zone and “Scarlet Innocence” is yet another example of the same. His Hak-kyu is loveable in his initial interactions with Doekee, but you just know that this is a man who will run to his family and normal life the first chance he gets. As the film progresses, his portrayal of the blind, helpless and desperate man caught between the two women in his life is worth the price of admittance itself. As is the performance by Esom! In her first leading role, she is spellbinding as the village girl whose love turns into obsession. Her naive, loveable performance is matched equally by the psychotic, vengeful act in the latter half. It is a surprise that it took 4 more years for her to get another role where she could really sink her teeth in like she does here with 2018’s “Microhabitat”. Both their uninhibited love-making scenes are also praiseworthy. Park So-young as Chungee is sadly underused, due to the material she is offered.
“Scarlet Innocence” has slightly further to offer than some admittedly wonderful eye-candy. Featuring two actors in performances that rank amongst their best, it is an enjoyable melodrama that stumbles as it shifts gears halfway through, but manages to reach its destination effectively. Fans of Jung Woo-sung should definitely check this out.