In the film "Revivre," a middle-aged man who has been looking after his dying wife suddenly finds himself attracted to a younger, beautiful woman. In the backdrop of the man's tireless emotional struggles, the contradicting themes of life and death, youth and maturity, and desire and responsibility continue to alternate throughout the film.
"Revivre" is the 102nd film of veteran director Im Kwon-taek, who wanted to the explore symbolic, ideational meanings of death.
The film is a sensitive adaptation of Korean author Kim Hoon's award-winning novel "Hwajang," a homonym for the words "makeup" and "cremation." Illustrating this ironic parallel, the film starts with the wife's funeral, with young women in full makeup attending the ceremony. Im employs nonlinear chronology throughout the film and uses flashbacks to parade moments of life and death intertwined.
"Everyone in life is heading toward death," Im explained about the funeral scene at a recent news conference in Seoul. "Through the film, I wanted to portray the man's incessant focus on work and attraction for the woman, all while his wife is dying."
Set in present-day Seoul, the film departs away from Im's usual focus on themes of the past, tradition and culture, and instead delves into the very present moment ― in his words, "the frank reality."
Veteran actor Ahn Sung-ki, in his seventh collaboration with Im, plays Oh Sang-moo, a top marketing executive at a cosmetic company. Every day, he commutes between his grueling working hours and the hospital to take care of his withering wife Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-jung), who has been diagnosed with a brain tumour.
Oh never complains nor fully reveals his slight disgust for having to feed her, shave her hair, change her diaper and wipe her.
Despite his seeming devotion to caring for his ailing wife, he finds himself utterly infatuated with the new marketing employee Choo Eun-joo (Kim Gyu-ri), who couldn't be more opposite of his wife in that she is younger, more charming and radiant.
Choo undoubtedly exudes a certain sex appeal, convincing film watchers that an affair is imminent.
Yet, Oh is always very careful not to over-convey his feelings. His affection toward her is shown in the film only by his constant daydreams about her.
The film never truly clarifies whether Oh's actions toward his wife were out of spousal responsibility or out of true love. However, the director did carefully suggest that even this passionless, habitual emotion indeed is love.
"Seeing one's wife passing is a usual but unusual circumstance in life," Im said. "But doing his utmost to take care of her ― as a person and as a husband ― is still beautiful.
"A man who cannot explicitly express his inner desire and affection due to embarrassment is very ordinary," Im added. "And I wanted to express this kind of unrevealed desire realistically."
In portraying the man's agony, there is no one better than 63-year-old Ahn, who can effectively project life through his poignant facial expressions and signature physique. He didn't have to say much. Instead, his deliberately slow movements, slouched back, deeply sorrowful eyes and weariness were all that was needed to portray his deep angst.
Actress Ho-jung fully immersed herself in playing the role that requires the fragile body of someone suffering from continuous, piercing pain. Of the much-talked-about bathroom scene where Ahn showers Kim's naked bottom half, the scene was so blunt and desperate that there was nothing obscene about it.
At last year's Busan International Film Festival, where it was screened for the first time in Korea, Kim revealed that she once struggled with illness in the past, which made her acting more relatable and a little easier.
Im noted that his main focus with this film was to put the original writer Kim's vigorous words onto the screen.
Just like he emphasised, the 95-minute film is slow yet intriguingly forceful in the fact that it is emotionally overwhelming and filled with traces of the master's focus and endeavour.
"Revivre" opens in theatres on April 9.