"Who was this kid? Had she never seen a man in a suit?
But she stared at me with such inquisitive eyes… That’s how I met her..."
Having been accused of sexual misconduct with a student, teacher Hak-kyu (Jung Woo-sung) undertakes a virtually forced, temporary relocation to a small town, leaving his wife and young daughter behind in Seoul while an investigation into the alleged incident takes place. While from the very outset of his 'exile' he determines to keep his head down in his new surroundings and focus on completing a novel, Hak-kyu's best laid plans are torn asunder the instant he casts his eye on effervescent young woman Deok-yi (Esom) and with the sexual chemistry between the two growing palpably on each and every encounter, before long they inevitably begin a passionate, illicit affair. On subsequently learning that Deok-yi is pregnant with his child, Hak-kyu sees his entire comfortable married life placed in jeopardy and after forcing her to have an abortion he unceremoniously ends their relationship almost without a second thought, leading to an utterly tragic chain of events affecting both the adulterous lovers and those closest to them.
Years pass, and though Hak-kyu has become a successful, bestselling author he is neither settled nor content. Living alone with his (now teenage) daughter Chung-ee (Park So-young), Hak-kyu is not only rapidly going blind but is also spiralling downward on a course of self-destruction, drinking himself to oblivion at any and every opportunity and indulging in meaningless sex with as many young women as his literary fame allows.
Just when Hak-kyu thinks that all hope for the future is lost, Se-jung - a girl who has befriended Chung-ee - enters his life offering to help him with his writing and promising to put him in touch with a doctor who may be able to save his sight.
However, Hak-kyu's increasing blindness prevents him from seeing that the supposedly helpful girl in question is in fact his betrayed ex-lover Deok-yi, a woman with, in truth, only vengeance on her mind...
'Scarlet Innocence' begins with visuals showing Hak-kyu's arrival in the small town in which he will temporarily reside and his first inadvertent encounter with Deok-yi, an accompanying past tense narration (by Hak-kyu himself) detailing the fact that from his very first glance at Deok-yi he knew his life would never be the same. Of course, neither Hak-kyu nor Deok-yi could possibly have imagined the all-encompassing effect their short, passionate affair would have on not just their futures but who they ultimately become as people and even what they are driven towards, the actions of one affecting and indeed influencing the decisions of the other long after their relationship has bitten the dust.
That in itself is closely related to an idea at the very core of 'Scarlet Innocence' - that is who is victim, who is victor, who is innocent and who is culpable within selfish/vengeful act upon act and the ease with which those positions can change. There is no question that Hak-kyu, for example, is an utterly self-serving individual, happy to do whatever he can get away with to fulfil his desires with barely a thought for the consequences of his actions on others - both before and for a certain time after his sight loss starts to become an issue - but while on a cursory look Deok-yi appears as the innocent victim of his wanton desires - she is searching for love while he simply wants a forbidden sexual outlet - a closer look reveals a somewhat different story. For, before the two have their first physical liaison, Deok-yi has already been made fully aware that Hak-kyu is both married and a father and in spite of that fact she is the one who initiates the sexual encounter, using the heat of the room as an excuse to play seductively (albeit briefly) with the top of her blouse and then taking the initiative to stand on tiptoe to passionately kiss Hak-kyu and leave him in no doubt whatsoever that sex is what she wants, as much as he does. A victim, certainly - considering how he subsequently treats her - but innocent, perhaps less so.
The morphing of victim into victor and vice versa is extrapolated to the nth degree as Scarlet Innocence's narrative gradually becomes ever more involved and the sheer unpredictably of the outcome of events - both major threads and subplots - is one of the strongest, most refreshing elements of this intricately nuanced film. It, too, is present from the very outset of proceedings with early scenes able to fit equally comfortably within standard romance/melodramas and darker, adult content filled dramatic thrillers (the latter ultimately being the case, in this instance), the only hint to the true state of play, to my mind, being the film's pansori origins and the intricate, far reaching story that implies.
And speaking of which:
While 'Scarlet Innocence' is a present day reinterpretation of classic Korean folktale/pansori 'Simcheongga' (심청가), its sexually-charged story of adultery, betrayal and revenge differs significantly from the original - a five part tale of a blind man cared for by his daughter who on eventually regaining his sight causes others without sight to once again see. Not only that, but 'Simcheongga' also ultimately has an upbeat feel and conclusion and is peppered with humour throughout to lighten the load, as it were, which is far from the case in 'Scarlet Innocence'.
Whether director Yim Pil-sung chose to make such changes simply to create a darker thriller; with the aim of making a story more readily relatable to a 2014 cinema audience; or indeed to allow the inclusion of adult content to fit with the recent Korean cinematic trend of 'erotic' narratives is something only he could answer, but whatever the reason in doing so Yim Pil-sung succeeds in all of the above.
Of course, with 'Scarlet Innocence' being so sexually graphic and indeed explicit (and believe me, it really is), there is always the danger of audiences assuming that the adult nature of the piece is just a bid for easy titillation and/or notoriety (as has been the case in far too many films, of late) but take my word that couldn't be further from the truth. Yes, 'Scarlet Innocence' is as sexually graphic as any recent 'erotic' Korean movie; and yes, there is a great deal of explicit sex throughout the film, but as far as I'm concerned each and every adult oriented scene is not only warranted but also entirely necessary, whether in underlining the sheer unbridled passion of Hak-kyu and Deok-yi's affair, or indeed highlighting the self-serving nature of Hak-kyu's later spiral downward into depravity, meaningless sexual encounters (from his perspective) and self-destruction.
For a good part of his acting career, from 'The Fox with Nine Tails', to 'A Moment to Remember', to 'The Good, The Bad, The Weird', and beyond, Jung Woo-sung has largely been seen as portraying archetypal good guys and though in films such as 'Daisy' his character(s) had a somewhat darker side, the perception of him as the hero of a piece has largely remained, to the extent that his playing of an out-and-out bad guy in 2013's 'Cold Eyes' came as rather a shock to many.
Jung Woo-sung brings his 'A-game' to 'Scarlet Innocence', his talent of portraying numerous characters with vastly differing personalities combining with the perception of him as good guy/hero to allow the utterly self-serving character of Hak-kyu to ultimately be believable as a hapless victim and even elicit audience sympathy.
Esom is, of course, far less advanced in her cinematic career, having only been acting in films since 2010, but nonetheless Yim Pil-sung's decision to cast her in the role of Deok-yi was frankly inspired. Not only does her youth accent the shocking nature of Deok-yi's adulterous affair with a married man, but the chemistry between the two main characters is palpable, to say the very least, and Esom also (deftly) succeeds in bringing absolute believability to Deok-yi's switch from smitten young girl to woman scorned, with aplomb.
While this present day reinterpretation of classic Korean folktale 'Simcheongga' (심청가) differs significantly from the original story, the intricately twisted, deeply involved and indeed noticeably emotional nature of Yim Pil-sung's sexually charged thriller 'Scarlet Innocence' (마담 뺑덕) positively screams of its pansori origin, throughout. A cautionary tale perfectly wrapped within a story of revenge and retribution, 'Scarlet Innocence' is ultimately as unpredictable as it is gripping.