As the European title of the film suggests, the story is about rebirth or to come alive again. Interestingly, Revivre’s Korean title Hwajang (화장) means “cremation” and “make-up”, and as the film progresses all of these meanings come into play in the narrative of the story, culminating in an end that is at once poignant and thought-provoking, and kept me guessing at the outcome until the credits rolled.
What’s seemingly a bland story about a senior executive’s ordeal in caring for his dying wife amidst the throes of a midlife crisis is anything but. The usual trappings that are all there — falling for his beautiful, young new employee, dealing with his own male health problems, and the stress and obligations of a high-ranking position in the Asian business world — somehow slowly manifests into a nuanced tale of facing the obstacles of aging and ultimately finding the right way forward.
Early on in the film, Mr Oh (Ahn Sung-ki), who works for a marketing firm, is seen leading his team on a huge rebranding campaign for a big-name cosmetic product. Throughout the film, as he is distracted by his many responsibilities and woes (not least the potential of a new love affair) his number two repeatedly hounds him for a final go-ahead on one of the two angles for the campaign: keeping with the old, time-honored and familiar theme avec un petit revamp, or going for a more modern, trendy and completely new look.
As the head of the campaign, Mr Oh weighs his options often and is unsure of his footing with either. Which would be the right course? While it’s important to stick to a loyal and familiar customer base, everyone knows that reinventing a brand is crucial in order to move with the times and to secure new target client groups. Maintaining the existing patronage offers stability, of course — and yet taking calculated risks to bring in new consumers is vital to product development, and hence progress and growth.
He could do both perhaps, retaining what’s core and adding on a new layer — something like a hybrid product. But would pandering to the new clientele alienate the traditional product loyalists, who have been there with their unflinching product devotion year in year out? Or vice-versa, if he tried to keep the traditional theme, would the new target group find the product boring, unexciting and too outdated for their tastes, losing interest before they could be reeled in?
The guiding subplot above obviously masks the true ambiguities in Mr Oh’s life, and although it makes a none too subtle metaphor for the crossroads he faces — dealing with the impending demise of a faithful partner while simultaneously trying to start a new relationship with an attractive, younger woman — that metaphor is skillfully applied and actually provides an interesting red thread in the film.
Ahn Sung-Ki plays in the big leagues in this film in his excellent portrayal of the tortured Mr Oh. His character’s introverted demeanor doesn’t offer him much dialogue, but the heartfelt expressions on his face and muted body gestures convey unequivocally a portrait of a man who is dealing with his misfortunes and duties with quiet dignity and meditative calm. Mrs Oh, played by Kim Ho-Jung, is nearly flawless as a woman who knows her time has come, albeit too soon, and is trying her damnedest to live the last of her days doing the right thing. Their scenes together of lifelong partners facing an imminent tragedy, especially during moments of her extreme sickness, are touching and raw, almost too intimate to watch.
At times, Revivre can feel emotionally taxing — as one can imagine watching a drama about midlife crisis could be — and in the hands of a lesser auteur, it might have been your standard plodding fare. Helmed by Im Kwon-Taek, the director of more than 100 features, the film’s ending, having followed the narrative that it did, presented one of the more satisfying moments I ever had as an audience… and one which I had not really seen coming. I felt like cheering Mr Oh on at the film’s resolution. I suppose this is what people mean when they say that mastery often comes from an old hand.