A noirish crimer-cum-psychodrama that keeps promising way more than it can deliver before finally jumping the tracks, “The Scarlet Letter” is a good-looking vehicle for South Korean star Han Seok-gyu (“Shiri,” “Tell Me Something”), but its reach exceeds the script’s grasp. Disappointing closer to this year’s Pusan fest has since been recut prior to general release Oct. 29 — with most changes reportedly affecting the final reels — for a running time some four minutes shorter. But with its fundamental problems of structure and shaky tone, pic’s overseas career looks dicey, whatever its local fortunes.
In a role that immediately (and unfairly) raises expectations of another crime chiller like “Tell Me Something,” Han plays arrogant yuppie cop Lee Gi-hun, who is summoned to a crime scene at a photo studio where the owner has had his head bashed in. Given the deceased had just taken out a life insurance policy, immediate suspicion falls on his wife, Ji Gyeong-heui (Seong Hyeon-ah). Lee & Co., however, initially haul in a petty crook, Kim Hyeok-ju (Yang Tae-do), whose prints were found in the studio and who’d extracted a pile of money from Gyeong-heui.
Lee, meanwhile, is busy balancing his personal life with his pregnant cellist wife, Han Su-hyeon (Eom Ji-weon), and a sultry jazz vocalist, Choi Ga-heui (Lee Eun-ju), who is an old school friend of Su-hyeon’s. Pressed by his superiors to solve the case and harassed by Ga-heui (who’s just found she’s pregnant too), Lee starts to crack.
Script never solves the dilemma of satisfactorily meshing the murder mystery with Lee’s tangled life. Writer-director Daniel H. Byun manages to cast off many of the distracting pretensions that afflicted his first pic, “Interview” (2000), but still lacks the technical smarts to come up with a sufficiently atmospheric envelope for the various contents of “Letter” to reside in.
Switch to a darker tone at the halfway mark again raises hopes that this could turn into some kind of Korean “Basic Instinct,” balancing psychology with detection, but again the script keeps faltering. Han is OK as the detective protag, but only one of the three actresses who surround him really gets a chance to hit a noirish stride. As the singer-mistress, Lee Eun-ju (best known as the lead in Hong Sang-soo’s “Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors”) shows socko screen presence, overshadowing Eom’s underdrawn wife and Seong’s bland widow.
Final 20 minutes, however, with their revelation concerning two characters, a ludicrous finale in a car trunk, and multiple endings, stretch credibility beyond breaking-point. Tech package is smooth throughout.