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January 27, 2011


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Byun Young-joo - 2002
Oscar Region 0 DVD

There is, to me, a remarkable shot of Lee Jong-won's back during the first scene of sex with Kim Yunjin. His back is covered with beads of sweat. Most filmed depictions of sex seem to miss that detail. Hot sex is more than the motions. Really great sex is sweaty, smelly and messy.

I'm not sure how the Korean title would really be translated, but Ardor seems about right. Byun Young-joo's film is in part about a relationship primarily based on mutual sexual attraction, but it's also about how love and sex mess with your head. There is a certain literalness to the film, possibly so Byun can put her points regarding what's going on with Kim's character of Mi-heun.

The film opens on Christmas Eve with the sudden appearance of a young woman at the Seoul apartment of Mi-heun and her husband. The inebriated young woman spontaneously reveals that she has been having an affair with the husband, causing shock to Mi-heun. Further attempting to stake her claim, the young woman strikes Mi-heun in the head with an unseen object, causing injury. The rest of the film takes place in late June, with Mi-heun and her husband and young daughter living near a small town, out in the countryside. Mi-heun continues to have headaches, possibly psychosomatic, and seems continually distracted.

Byun's literalness continues when Mi-heun meets the man who would be her lover, In-kyu, when her car stalls at a crossroad. The first day that Mi-heun and In-kyu make love coincides with the beginning of typhoon season. At least Byun is smart enough not to feel the need to underline her points for the less visually attentive viewer.

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Ardor in spirit reminded me of Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Chereau's Intimacy. In-kyu proposes to Mi-heun that they have a relationship that is temporary, lasting no longer than Summer, to end if either person makes a declaration of love. Mi-huen's passion is such that she sneaks out of the house, barefoot, wearing nothing but a nightgown, and walks over to In-kyu's home. In-kyu even admits that he is having difficulty playing by his own rules.

This is a film of doublings. Mi-heun and In-kyu's relationship echoes what is described to Mi-huen by her husband's lover on Christmas Eve. Right before Mi-heun and In-kyu meet, Mi-heun wanders around the outside of a house, surveying the wreckage of strewn items, which she later learns was the setting of a murderous lovers' quarrel, a true broken home. Mi-heun becomes friends with a woman who runs a small roadside snack house, who also is in a volatile relationship with her husband. Finally, the husband becomes aware of Mi-huen's affair, reacting in fury as if his own actions that set the narrative in motion had never happened.

I have written about Byun Young-joo previously in a post about Flying Boys. Some of the critical reaction to Ardor is of interest because there is a divide regarding how much of a feminist reading should be applied to this film. I don't think the points raised are invalid. With her documentaries, Byun has established her feminist credentials. Perhaps Ardor was Byun's declaration of entitlement for some ambiguity or open interpretation, what is often looked for with many admired filmmakers who also happen to be male.

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Posted by peter at January 27, 2011 07:27 AM