Now proudly up to his 102nd feature, Im Kwon-taek questions the very nature of love and responsibility in “Revivre,” the story of a top executive distracted by a beautiful marketing-account manager just when his wife is dying of a brain tumor. This is the sort of pic that makes auds question their own future – will I be the dying spouse, or the caregiver? – producing a melancholic reverie, despite longueurs and an overuse of flashback that wreaks havoc on structure and buildup. Though more accessibly mainstream than some of Im’s recent output, the film will likely be consigned to fests and showcases outside Asia.
Following a slew of period and folklore-influenced pieces, Im returns to the present day, calling to mind some of the themes from his 1996 pic “Festival.” Oh Sang-moo (Ahn Sung-ki, in his seventh film with the helmer) is executive director of a major cosmetics company, preparing for a new ad campaign. At the same time, his wife, Jin-kyung (Kim Ho-jung), is hospitalized with a recurrence of brain cancer.
Never a complainer, Oh shuttles between his office and the hospital, where he compassionately tends to his wife’s failing body, even washing and changing her himself rather than calling the nurses. Jin-kyung slowly deteriorates, her pain and depression making her a diffident, angry patient who expresses far more affection for her dog than her husband.
In truth, Oh’s relationship with his wife appears to be mostly dutiful husband rather than loving partner. Better editing would have clarified the bond and the personalities, diffused by continual shifts between past and present that too often nullify subtleties. What just about comes through, however, is that Oh never felt passion for Jin-kyung: His gentle solicitousness in the hospital is the response of a kind man to a tragic situation rather than the tender ministrations of a devoted helpmate.
During this high-pressure moment, in comes Choo Eun-joo (Kim Qyu-ri), the cosmetics company’s marketing deputy. Young and vibrant with sophisticated tastes, she’s a pleasant yet disturbing distraction for Oh, who enjoys glancing at this comely newcomer (Im’s camera seems equally besotted, even resorting to slo-mo). Choo is vaguely aware of the effect she has, but only when she calls off her wedding and considers switching companies does she really think about Oh’s position in her life.
A few fantasy sequences feel out of place in the overall naturalism of “Revivre,” which works best when observing Oh’s surreptitious glances, or his assiduous attention to his increasingly taciturn wife. There are a daughter and son-in-law, but Im shortchanges their roles, reducing the pair to little more than worried, then grieving relatives. Does Jin-kyung’s bitterness stem from the realization that her husband never really loved her, or has she known this for some time? All the crosscutting makes it impossible to take in the emotional trajectory.
Fortunately, Ahn is such an appealing presence that he makes Oh a deeply sympathetic figure, sadly enlightened rather than ennobled by suffering. There’s not an ounce of self-pity in the ultra-popular actor’s nuanced performance, making the sight of this good, unfulfilled man diligently washing his dying wife’s fragile body especially moving. Striking shots of a traditional Korean funeral procession bookend the film and act as visual contrasts to the respectful intimacy that characterizes the whole. The Korean title, “Hwajang,” has a double meaning of “cosmetics” and “cremation.”