TIFF14: Scarlet Innocence

Scarlet Innocence is mostly what you’d expect from a South Korean thriller and not much more. It has the concern about moral and social corruption, the characters driven by revenge, the raw (not Hollywood glossy) sex, and the abundance of strange and slightly twisted moments that you’d expect if you’re familiar with the genre. It also embodies the variety and unpredictably of Korean cinema in general (at least from this Westerner’s perspective), presenting unapologetic cliché alongside the bizarre and the unexpected. There’s always that sense that things could go anywhere in Korean thrillers, in contrast to the Hollywood strain that rarely surprise even with their surprises. Unfortunately, as Korean thrillers go, Scarlet Innocence is too unremarkable to recommend to just anybody, but, for those who have a penchant for this country’s electric new cinema or a taste for East Asian revengers, it’s worth a watch if easily available.

As a PhD candidate, the element I found most surprising actually was that the dissolute, charismatic protagonist is a literature professor. (Apparently, the humanities are still going strong at Korean universities.) No bumbling ivory tower academic, Professor Shim Hak-kyu’s profession seems to carry a level of cachet throughout the film. He also becomes a bestselling author. Of course, all of this makes sense because Shim is played by South Korean movie star heartthrob Jung Woo-sung (women screamed for him during the Q and A).

Star professor Shim, under investigation for harassing a female student, retreats from Seoul (and his wife and daughter) to the spend his winter of discontent in a Korean country town. There, he meets a young girl (Esom) and leads her on, only to eventually leave her. Of course, years later she reenters his life.

The film was introduced as an adaptation of the famous Korean fairy tale about the devoted daughter Shim Cheong. Any non-Korean not told this would have had a hard time guessing at the folk tale element, since the film has little interest in fairy tales as a theme, and the tale of Shim Cheong exerts more influence on the second half. Scarlet Innocence is one of those modern attempts to explore the psychology behind traditional tales, and while, as a thriller, the film is admirably more interested in psychology and emotion than blood and sex, I don’t quite understand the film’s interest in the tale. Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, which I saw the day beforehand, offers a more complex modern reading of folk tale psychology while at the same time managing to capture the feel of fairy tales.

5 out of 10

Scarlet Innocence (South Korea)

Directed by Yim Pil-sung; written Yim and Jang Yoon-mi; starring Jung Woo-sung and Esom.

Scarlet Innocence is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the City to City program.