“A Reason to Live” is the latest film from acclaimed though not particularly prolific Korean writer director Lee Jeong Hyang, following on from his popular 1999 comedy “Art Museum by the Zoo” and 2002 heart warmer “The Way Home”. Produced by regular John Woo collaborator Terence Chang and based upon an idea Lee had apparently been mulling over since his college days, the film is another exploring faith and forgiveness through the case of a woman whose fiancé is murdered. With top television actress Song Hye Kyo (recently in “Make Yourself at Home”, and soon to be seen in Wong Kar Wei’s “The Grandmasters”) in the lead, the film also stars upcoming teen actress Nam Ji Hyun (“Ghost”), with support from Ki Tae Young (“Royal Family”) and Song Chang Ui (“Once Upon a Time in Seoul”).
Song Hye Kyo plays Da Hye, a woman who has managed to get over a tough childhood thanks to the love of her fiancé Sang Woo (Ki Tae Young). Sadly, Sang Woo is killed in a brutal hit and run accident, though through her catholic faith, Da Hye finds it in herself to absolve his teenage killer. While researching a documentary on forgiveness and capital punishment for the church, she interviews a variety of people who have undergone similar trials, and in the process begins to question her own judgement. Matters are further complicated by the arrival of Ji Min, the young sister of one of Sang Woo’s friends, who comes to live with her, claiming that she is being beaten by her cruel father.
Given the plot of “A Reason to Live” and its religious themes, comparisons with Lee Chang Dong’s award winning “Secret Sunshine” are inevitable, and the films do have a fair amount in common. However, Lee Jeong Hyang takes quite a different approach to the subject matter, with the film being far more concerned with the emotional effects of forgiveness and the journey of victims, rather than attempting to expose hypocrisy. The film is deeply personal and sympathetic rather than overtly religious, and whilst it is at times depressing and deals with a catalogue of grim topics including child abuse, rape and murder, it remains for the most part quiet and thoughtful throughout.
Lee generally succeeds in his aims, and although the film is a little slow and anecdotal, in part to Da Hye’s various interviews, which all deal with unresolved stories of suffering, it has sufficient depth to challenge and engage. It’s a determinedly philosophical piece of work, though thankfully in an unaggressive and naturalistic manner, with most of its debates being played out in discussions and arguments between Da Hye and Ji Min. Wisely, despite the film’s religious foundation, Lee never offers any easy answers or the kind of emotional placebos which would have lessened the overall impact, instead seeming to suggest that forgiveness is not only far from easy, but may not always be best. Directed with maturity, the film also benefits from a reasonably clever structure, the narrative progressing both in the present and through a series of well handled flashbacks which reveal more about Da Hye, Ji Min and past events.
Song Hye Kyo, arguably one of the most talented of Korean actresses, is strong in the lead role, with a performance that lifts Da Hye from being a mere symbol or cipher to an actual character who the viewer comes to care about. Initially aloof and cold, Lee does a great job of slowly peeling back her façade, with Song convincingly allowing her emotions to surface. Nam Ji Hyun is similarly impressive, adding depth to the difficult role of Ji Min, who to an extent is largely in the film to act as an ideological sparring partner for Da Hye, as well as an example of someone who unrepentantly refuses to forgive – whether this is justifiably so is left to the viewer to decide by the time the downbeat conclusion rolls around.
This even handedness is at the heart of “A Reason to Live”, a film which is emotional and morally fascinating without ever being preachy or too obvious. Lee Jeong Hyang manages to add something new to the ongoing Korean cinematic debate on faith and forgiveness, and though the film meanders and may not pack the punch or cynicism of some of its peers, it’s a pleasingly philosophical work, and one which never loses sight of the human suffering at its core.
Jeong-hyang Lee (director) / Jeong-hyang Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Hye-kyo Song … Da-Hye
Ji-hyeon Nam … Ji-Min
Chang-ui Song … Song-Ho