A Reason to Live: Busan Film Review

Female-centered melodrama fuses the sentimental with the contemplative.

Lee Jeong-hyang's new film focuses on the friendships and conflicts between a woman who loses her fiance and a teenage girl suffering parental abuse.

After a long hiatus following the highly successful offbeat rom-com Art Museum by the Zoo (1999) that is representative of the Korean Wave, Lee Jeong-hyang’s new feature A Reason to Live is markedly different in tone and style. Depicting the friendship and conflicts between a woman who lost her fiancé and a teenage girl suffering parental abuse, it is a somber exploration of spiritual, ethical and philosophical paradoxes. The lingo of romantic melodrama Lee uses is sometimes not on the same page as the abstract subject, but Lee maintains a consistent mood of pensive melancholy, supported by a narrative sometimes achieves themelodious flow of a musical movement.

The combination of John Woo’s longtime producer Terence Chang as Reason’s producer and Korean TV drama queen Song Hye-kyo carries substantial weight in sales to Asian territorieslike China and Japan. But the film’s serious tone may give it less raison d’etre in commercial markets beyond.

Reason to Live begs inevitable comparison with Lee Changdong’s Secret Sunshine. Both trace a woman’s purgatorial ordeal in accepting a loved one’s unjust murder and a world without providence. Both ponder the limits of religion in her hour of need. While Secret invokes vesuvian emotions with icy, god-like detachment, Reason is less acute in its social relevance, butsuffused with greater warmth and sympathy for the character’s pain and human flaws.

At her fiancé Sang-ho’s memorial service, Dahe is gently chided by his sister for signing a petition to revoke the juvenile murderer’s death penalty. She also receives a gift which she is not to open until she feels ready.

Through multiple flashbacks, one learns what happened a year ago. While on their way home to celebrate Dahe’s birthday, Sang-ho gets a call from his friend Ji-suk, who just got ditched by his girlfriend. Sang-ho drops Dahe off to go comfort Ji-suk, but is preempted by Ji-suk’s sister Ji-min (Nam Ji-hyun). Rushing back in the rain to bring Dahe the umbrella she left in his car, Sang-ho is knocked down by a motorbike. Instead of helping him, the driver ruthlessly runs himover a second time.

Dahe is commissioned by her Catholic church to shoot a documentary to critique the inhumanity of capital punishment. Ji-min accompanies her on interviews withfamily members of murdered victims. However, Dahe’s moral convictions and desire to be compassionate are shaken to the core when she discovers that soon after his reprieve, Sang-ho’s murderer brutally killed a classmate.

The flashback-punctuated structure is responsible for some slow patches that prevent one from penetrating Dahe’s troubled mind and the moral dilemmas she’s struggling with. As Ji-min comes into the picture, the emotional dynamics change course from a rather maudlin cliché about lost love to a sensitive and engaging two-hander about female solidarity and healing.

With Dahe’s living room functioning as the main set — which takes on the ambience of a fetal cocoon — the two woman not only bond. They grapple with their own demons and eventually discover that they are tormented by the same thing: that some people are innately evil so no amount of love or magnanimity can change them. Ji-min’s cruel physical and psychological abuse by her father (ironically a judge), the juvenile murderer’s remorselessness and Ji-suk’s indifference over Sang-ho’s death are all manifestations of flawed human nature.

Thematically, the film appears to explore forgiveness in a Christian context. However, its conclusion, though not as cynical and cutting as Secret Sunshine, does not resolve moral dilemmas or heal wounds in such a conventional way. Following their traumatic experiences, the protagonists realize that peace is attainable, but it comes with a price and the ending ambiguously leaves one wondering whether it’s worth it. Despite the title, whether any character in the film truly finds a reason to live also remains open-ended.

Song’s past efforts to cultivate a more versatile screen image than her TV personahave resulted in failed gambits, such as Hwang Jin-yi and Fetish. The role of Dahe is not far from the tearful damsels she perennially plays on TV. The difference is, there is also something of the Pharisee in her self-righteous mercy and initially condescending disapproval of Ji-min’s bitterness towards her parents. Song captures the role’s inner contradictions and imbues her suffering with composure and restraint.

Playing an emotionally unstable teenager who is more often unlikeable than not, Namcaptures her unpredictable mood changes precisely, arousing sympathy gradually as Ji-min’s true intentions for being around Dahe emerges in a series of well-timed revelations.

The sweeping score, lush lighting and sensuously saturated color texture smack of standard commercial or TV style art direction, but over all technical credits are impressive.

Venue: Busan International Film Festival, Gala Presentation
Sales: Lotte Entertainment
Production companies: Four Seasons Sky Company.
Cast: Song Hye-kyo, Nam Ji-hyun
Director-screenwriter: Lee Jeong-hyang
Producer: Hwang Jae-woo, Hwang Woo-hyun, Terence Chang
Director of photography: Kim Hyung-joo
Music: Kim Dae-hong
Editor: Kim Sang-bum
No rating, 119 minutes