A woman’s self-sacrifice becomes her means of self-fulfillment in Korean filmmaker Gina Kim’s emotionally intense melodrama “Never Forever.” Intimate love triangle flirts with risibility in some of its story particulars, but Vera Farmiga’s fearlessly committed turn as a woman caught off-guard by her own desires and Kim’s highly sensitive camera turn the film into a chamber-piece of hushed eroticism and surprising narrative grip. Broader in appeal than the helmer’s avant-garde features “Gina Kim’s Video Diary” and “Invisible Light,” the film will be welcomed into further boudoirs on the fest circuit but may struggle to connect with a wider audience.
Suburban housewife Sophie (Farmiga) is married to a handsome Korean-American lawyer, Andrew (David L. McInnis). The specter hanging over the couple’s otherwise happy marriage is Andrew’s sterility — a state that brings him to try to kill himself, after which Sophie is driven to secretive and reckless action.
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Refused as a candidate for artificial insemination, Sophie happens to notice a fellow reject at the sperm bank, a Korean immigrant named Jihah (Jung-woo Ha) who is deemed ineligible as a donor. Impulsively, she trails him back to his cramped apartment in the (unspecified) city, where she offers him a job — regular sex sessions at $300 apiece, plus an additional $30,000 if she conceives — and then mechanically disrobes before he can answer.
The less-than-satisfactory motivation behind these events — from Andrew’s attempted suicide to Sophie’s sudden willingness to cheat on the husband she loves — may open Kim’s script to easy dismissal. Call it soap opera, but viewers willing to indulge the conceit will uncover an overriding emotional logic that stems largely from Farmiga’s terse conviction, from the businesslike way she seals her clothes in a plastic bag to her refusal to meet her lover’s eyes while doing the deed.
Predictably, Jihah becomes irritated and even hurt by Sophie’s refusal to treat intercourse as anything more than a business transaction. But as Sophie finds herself drawn to her partner, “Never Forever” gets at the basic but profound truth that nothing so complicated can ever be reduced to something so simple.
At every step of the way, Kim and cinematographer Matthew Clark show a heightened perceptiveness to the contours and barriers of Sophie and Jihah’s relationship — what’s acceptable and what isn’t — as expressed in the physicality of sex. While the love scenes are fairly frank, Kim seems less interested in titillating auds than in exploring the precise microcalibrations of body language that distinguish a sex act from an act of love.
The seeds of upper-middle-class repression planted in the early scenes come to fruition later, as Sophie’s attachment to Jihah — Andrew’s antithesis in every respect except race — becomes the fulcrum for her rebellion. (Pic could well have been titled “Sophie’s Choice.”) Farmiga serves as a remarkable vehicle for the film’s subtext, looking like a blond-haired, blue-eyed alien among her Asian-American relatives.
As Jihah, popular Korean newcomer Ha (“The Unforgiven”) manages the tricky job of connecting with Farmiga in an English-language performance that requires him to stay emotionally guarded. Although McInnis’ role is the least developed, the actor broods effectively as the cuckolded husband.
Tech contributions are small-scaled but accomplished. Relying almost entirely on natural lighting, Clark’s fluid lensing stays tightly trained on the actors’ faces, the camera at times seeming to shudder in rhythm with their bodies.