‘Revivre’: Venice Review

Courtesy of Myung Film
A painfully frank look at the ravages of aging, in a film torn between art and melodrama

It's a question of life and death and sex in Im Kwon-taek’s 102nd film starring veteran Ahn Sungki as a sick man caught between two women

The story of an aging executive who falls for a young beauty while tending to his dying wife is a bit hard to swallow, caught up as it is in the conventions of melodrama and men’s romantic fantasy. Yet there are scenes of touching power in Revivre (Hwajang), the 102nd film from prolific Korean director Im Kwon-taek, that redeem the iffy bits. In the end, it's a rather melancholy essay on the indignities of aging and dying. In his sixth teaming with the director, Ahn Sungki, one of South Korea’s greatest stars, can still turn on the charm as the handsome but no longer young protag Mr. Oh. He should assure the film receives local attention, while the Finecut drama can count on Venice and Toronto to test the waters with foreign audiences.

Though the action is not always crystal clear as it jumps back-and-forth in time, the basics are easy enough to grasp. Mr. Oh occupies a high-level marketing position in a major cosmetics firm and Song Yunhee’s screenplay offers him many chances to make corporate decisions as well as hang out in a big glass office and socialize with underlings over drunken dinners that are apparently an integral part of life at Korean companies.

The film opens on a traditional funeral parade on a wind-swept ridge, with mourners in black costumes following a woman in an ornate coffin.  Although this striking image turns out to be a fantasy, it is soon clear that Mr. Oh’s wife Jinkyung (theater actress Kim Hojung) has died.  Flashbacks show her long, painful, often humiliating struggle with a brain tumor and the impressive tenderness with which her husband cared for her, juggling nights in the hospital with his heavy work schedule. He is also ailing with prostate problems that require embarrassing visits to a clinic to relieve himself. Nudity is rare in Korean cinema, but these startlingly frank moments make careful use of it to underline the distressing fragility of the human body.

Despite or perhaps because of these painful circumstances, he finds himself irresistibly drawn to beautiful new marketing staffer Choo Eunjoo, played with sultry coyness by rising actress Kim Qyuri. The idea is that the life force is indomitable and always reasserts itself, but the would-be May-December love story between the girl and her boss has the taste of daytime drama, perhaps due to Miss Choo being adoringly filmed more like Marlene Dietrich than a believable member of the work force. One’s suspicion is that she intends to sleep her way up the corporate ladder, but this cynical reading is trounced in an unexpected coup de theatre.

Meanwhile poor Jinkyung continues withering away in the hospital, putting Oh’s marital love to the ultimate test. In two wrenching scenes, he uncomplainingly changes her diaper and cleans her on the toilet. These are so frank and matter-of-fact they're hard to watch, yet very impressive work from both actors. Ahn Sungki is the soul of Asian understatement, while Kim Hojung runs a gamut of emotions, from self-abasement to helplessness and fury, as the dying woman whose funeral, we know, is just around the corner.  

Kim Hoon’s award-winning short story on which the film is based plays on the similarity of the words for “cremation” and “putting on make-up.”  Im Kwon-taek never comes out and explicitly states this interesting parallel, but the contrast is there in the film. 

Production company: Myung Films
Ahn Sungki, Ki Qyuri, Kim Hojung
Director: Im Kwon-taek
Screenwriter: Song Yunhee based on a novel by Kim Hoon
Producer: Shim Jaemyung
Executive producer: Lee Eun
Director of photography: Kim Hyungkoo
Production designer: Ju Byungdo
Costume designer: Lee Jihee
Editor: Park Sunduck, Steve M. Choi
Music: Kim Soochul
Sales:  Finecut
No rating, 93 minutes