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As the old advertising adage goes, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. Well, tell that to Kim Yoon-jin. Star of box office sensation Shiri (which is reviewed here) and actress of quite some standing in her native South Korea. In late 2001, she embarked upon an exceptionally brave role in Milae (here loosely translated as Ardor although a closer approximation to the original Korean would simply be ‘love’), a tale of passion and adultery.

Several sexy sequences and a scandalised South East Asia later, the esteemed actress found herself taking flak from all directions for the onscreen activities involved in her portrayal of Lee Mi-huen, an ordinary housewife seeking amorous adventure in the arms of a man who was not her husband.

Ardor (Limited Edition)
Humble housewife Lee Mi-huen has dedicated the last 8 years of her life to building the foundations of a solid family life for her husband and her young daughter Su-jin. One Christmas Eve, in desperation an obviously unhinged student of her husband’s arrives at the Lee home, irrationally bidding to extend their previously undisclosed affair.

With the indiscretion laid bare before her very eyes, including the exceedingly unwelcome news that the student’s aborted baby was bankrolled by her husband, the inconsolable Huen takes a blow to the head, prompting the intervention of her other half.

Flashing forward six months, the Lee family has swapped the comfortable security of the Seoul suburbs for a life in the country. With Su-jin starting at a new school and her husband attempting to repair the damage to their marriage caused by his affair, Huen is plagued by persistent headaches as a result of her injury, forcing her to survive zombie-like on copious quantities of Xanax.

During one particularly painful attack, Huen seeks the advice of the village’s only local doctor, Choi In-kyu (Lee Jong-won). It is during this meeting that the married Kyu suggests they play a game as an antidote to her unfortunate affliction. What begins as a simple series of loveless sexual encounters, indeed the very word ‘love’ is banned between the pair, erupts into a deep relationship that threatens to engulf them both…

Ardor is a wonderful example of the kind of emotive drama that was previously the preserve of the French; something you’d expect more from Patrice Leconte or Claude Chabrol than a Korean director. It’s a slow burning study of relationships in crisis, at times an excruciatingly uncomfortable exploration of how partners can labour on in a marriage beyond repair, each in the mistaken belief that it benefits the other for such a situation to continue.

Director Byu Young-jun takes his cues from the aforementioned French film style but also in the striking sartorial use of colour from Powell and Pressburger’s  Black Narcissus to illustrate Huen’s blossoming independence and her burgeoning sensuality. Dour grey and black garments gradually give way to those of light blue and full red (alongside subtle changes in facial make up) in a way that is evident yet never overstated.

Byu also allows the passion and/or tension to build progressively in each scene with the use of long single shots that reinforces the intensity of the emotional conflagrations and the raw earthiness of the love-making.

Ah yes, the sex scenes. Forget the ridiculous rumpo of Fatal Attraction and its cringeworthy clones, with almost no bare flesh making an appearance this is a touching and tender treatment of what goes on behind closed doors. Perhaps what is most contentious to an Asian audience, hence the uproar, is that it is the female character who takes the lead and actually ends up more emotionally secure than her male partner when it comes to the crunch at the end of the movie.

Ardor (Limited Edition)
Nonetheless, the final 15 minutes does suffer a little in that Huen isn’t quite allowed to have the courage of her convictions. Regrettably, I am not sufficiently qualified to attest whether the censor, South Korean society, screenwriter or director applied most pressure in constructing the downbeat ending as it is but it does feel somewhat contrived.

Perhaps more than any other point in the film, the end sequence underpins the painful nature of personal growth and change. Hollywood hasn’t touched this sort of territory in thirty years so, if Ardor is anything to go by, long may South Korea continue in this vein.

Alongside his co-star, Lee suffers a bit, seemingly hired more for his ‘himbo’ status in Korea than his actual acting skill but he’s not bad by any means as the philandering general practitioner. Kim Yoon-jin though is absolutely electrifying. Merely through mannerisms and movement, Kim manages the arc of her character’s transition from aloof loneliness to lusty liberation with consummate skill. Of course, one hopes that Kim Yoon-jin will be rehabilitated from the public mauling she received. Indeed, if her performance here had not been so good, it’s unlikely she’s have been the focus of such unwarranted attention.

In such a film in which nuances are closely observed, it’s a pretty solid transfer. Colours are finely balanced in Huen’s emotional and sartorial transformation with sharp edges and soft flesh tones (in one scene very effectively delineating a striking red dress against pale skin) with no sense of blooming or bleeding.

Ardor (Limited Edition)
Shadow detail is also surprisingly good. In fact, it really needs to be because, despite the recent nature of the film, this transfer is dark. A couple of moments spent adjusting the brightness and contrast levels will swiftly soon cure the gloom to produce the picture you’d expect but, while the dour nature of the material obviously lends itself to such a treatment, it’s curious as to why it’s like this in the first place.

Thankfully the subtitles are clearly legible (either in English or Korean), unaffected by the above. Thoughtfully placed and spaced on the screen in a satisfyingly chunky white font, there are a couple of spelling and typographical errors (with the usual lack of full stops in alternating dialogue between one or more characters) but these are most infrequent. In a couple of instances the subtitles give a slightly different tone to what is actually being said; in the opening sequence the student is translated as referring to Huen’s husband as “sweetie” although her original Korean spoken word is a little more overtly sexual. Yet in such a dialogue driven film the subtext of the characters’ interplay is very impressively accomplished through the subtitling.

A single Dolby Digital 5.1 track is available in the original Korean language. As you might expect in such a claustrophobic personal drama there isn’t a whole lot for the rear channels to do. That said, the surrounds are seep into life very well in establishing the outstandingly emotive cello based score and imbuing it with the appropriate enveloping sadness. What channel separation there is (usually restricted to a car going from one side of the screen to another and the like) is managed capably and the Korean dialogue is always pin sharp from the centre speaker.

Unfortunately, like most Korean releases, while the menu system is available in English the extra features are for native speakers only with no English subtitles. Nevertheless, the following is a rundown of what you can expect.

First off is an Audio Commentary from director Byun Young-jun. One must hazard a guess that at key points he is illustrating some of the processes behind the making of the movie but he’s a somewhat reticent chap and would really benefit from having someone alongside to make him more lively.

Next up comes a letterboxed 13 minute sequence of Deleted Scenes using the original timecoded tape, complete with optional commentary from the director. Several key sequences, it seems, hit the cutting room floor, including the point at which Huen’s husband uncovers her infidelity and an extended version of the final contretemps between the pair as the marriage palpably disintegrates before their very eyes.

Ardor (Limited Edition)
It is most plausible to assume that these were excised on the basis of narrative expediency; with more memorably moving acting from Kim that never made it to the final cut, you’d have to admire her performance to an even greater extent.

If there’s one supplemental feature that Korean DVD producers regularly know how to make better than anyone else, it’s the much maligned ’Making Of’ Documentary. Clocking in at a corking 45 minutes, this one, delivered in fullscreen, is guided by a female voice over. Supremely satisfying in its scope (even without subtitles), the feature provides plenty of behind the scenes footage (including Lee and Kim ‘blessing’ the set) which illustrates the precipitously exposed nature of the actors (in more ways than one!) who have to make sex scenes look sexy in front of a couple dozen crew members. There’s also plenty of rehearsal footage, in which it is apparent how far Kim in person differs from her character, interspersed with interview clips with various crew members.

To follow this there are Interviews with the director and his two principals. Each lasting just over 3 minutes, with excerpts from the film included it is possible to get the gist of what each is saying. Lee is so laid back it’s untrue (he seems very at home with his laconic character) whereas Kim is very agitated, probably very passionate about the portrayal of her alter ego.

Concisely termed O.S.T. is an interview with the film’s composer (alas I am unable to translate his name). At 20 minutes in length, this is an in-depth examination of his motivation in writing the score and, to clips of the movie, it is made clear as to why certain instruments were used to create the various musical motifs.

To complement the above is a fullscreen Music Video, using the inclusion of the folky Joan Baez number ‘Donna Donna’, which not all too successfully edits together segments of the movie into a more digestible form. The way that it is constructed suggests it’s hardly marketing material but it does succinctly reinforce the main themes of the movie.

Another fullscreen feature, termed Kiss And Poster is a 5 minute look at how the movie’s posters were cynically manipulated for maximum effect. The image that was used for the main poster, and indeed the DVD cover, does not even take place in the narrative, shot specifically for publicity purposes. Also included here is behind the scenes footage of a photo shoot that Kim undertook, several shots of which are incorporated into the disc’s menu system.

Ardor (Limited Edition)
A Photo Gallery is the last extra on the disc and, like the rest, is good value. On set stills, promotional material and the crew’s Polaroid snaps are available in this section, totalling around 40 pictures for your perusal.

Included in this Bitwin R3 release that just oozes quality is a bonus CD featuring 8 tracks taken from the score. The unabridged version of the Joan Baez ‘Donna Donna’ song is here as well as some soft cello-led musical cues that are crushing in their emotional intensity. It’s mystifying why these were not used in the finished film but they’re very welcome indeed to this reviewer. Be warned; some of this music is enough to bring a tear to the hardiest audience…

Superbly packaged by Bitwin and lovingly produced, once the relatively minor visual deficiency is adjusted, this is a film to grab you by the throat. Certainly not the kind of movie you’d want to sample on a first date, nor if you’ve just been through a break up, Ardor is a refreshingly complex drama that could easily put off the more casual viewer. Heartbreaking in its’ depiction of very human failings of which every member of the audience is capable, it’s a tough treatise on the very essence of the meaning of life and love.