I wish I could tell you I didn’t know how “Ardor”, a South Korean movie about a wronged wife who herself enters into an affair, would end, but unfortunately I can’t. I had hoped that because “Ardor” is a South Korean movie it would refrain from treading the same trails numerous Bored Housewife Has Affair movies have already done (most noticeably the recent Diane Lane movie “Unfaithful”), but it doesn’t.
Like “Unfaithful”, “Ardor” benefits greatly from an effective leading lady in Kim Yun-Jin (“Mr. Iron Palm”), who plays Mi-heun, a devoted housewife and mother who as the film opens is attacked in her own home by her husband’s mistress. Suffering more from mental than physical scars, Mi-heun and her husband moves to the countryside, where Mi-heun enters into a passionate love affair with In-kyu (Lee Jong-won), the village’s carefree and very married doctor. Without knowing it, Mi-heun begins to lie to her husband, wronging him the way he had wronged her.
There are a lot to like about “Ardor”, most notably the performances by its two leads. The actor playing the husband is also very good. It’s very obvious director Byeong Yeong-ju, a woman, knows the inequity of being female in male-dominated South Korea. Mi-heun’s affair is more than just a means to sexual fulfillment, it’s her way of giving the finger to a society that looks the other way when her husband is cheating on her, but would not provide her with the same nonchalance.
Still, “Ardor” is a relatively simple movie without any twists or turns. There are no big surprises, and the characters are easy to read. I hesitate to say they’re all one-dimensional, but really, they are quite one-dimensional. It isn’t the case that I would have preferred some out-of-left-field twist, but I would have liked for the movie to stray just a little bit from the usual path that most Bored Housewife Has Affair movies seem to take. “Happy End”, for example, is completely unpredictable and a much more complex movie. I would have liked some of that complexity in “Ardor”.
What does make the film worth watching is the soulful performance of Kim Yun-jin, who was last seen as a selfish woman in “Mr. Iron Palm” and before that, as a North Korean assassin in “Shiri”. Kim has grown by leaps and bounds as an actor, and her Mi-heun effortlessly shifts between a woman in a perpetual daze to one who has found renewed vigor in her affair with In-kyu. As the heart and soul of the film, Kim does wonderful work here.
As the other part of the affair, Lee Jong-won (“Mr. Butterfly”) is appropriately shady, shadowy, and mysterious. For much of its first half the screenplay treats In-kyu as a background character, someone who comes in and out of Mi-heun’s life. Eventually, though, In-kyu does achieve some measure of resonance and becomes a large part of Mi-heun’s return to self-awareness; even so, he’s still not important enough for us to know the name of his wife. “Ardor” is very much Mi-heun’s story from beginning to end, and although In-kyu and the husband have key roles, they’re not what drives the movie, as, I believe, was the intention.
Like a lot of movies about housewives who strays into the arms of another man, “Ardor” can’t help but be sexual. When your entire premise hangs on a woman who learns to enjoy the fruits of sexuality, there’s no getting around showing sex. It’s just a question of limits and how explicit things will get. Unlike “Intimacy”, which showed the explicit sex as a throwaway byproduct of an affair and of little consequence, “Ardor” takes a more intimate approach. There’s not the explicitness of “Summer Time”, but “Ardor” is still very sensual.
Byeon Yeong-Ju (director)
CAST: Kim Yun-Jin … Mi-heun
Lee Jong-Won … In-kyu