A Reason To Live (O-neul – lit. trans Today)

Korea (2011) Dir. Jeong-hyang Lee

It’s been one year since TV producer Da-Hye’s (Song Hye-Kyo) fiancé Sang-Woo (Ki Tae-Young) is killed in a hit and run accident by a fifteen year-old boy who Da-Hye, in line with her Catholic faith forgives the boy. But when making a documentary for the church about the death penalty in which Da-Hye interviews many different victims of crimes, the varying responses cause Da-Hye to question whether forgiveness is not only easy but is it right?

Acclaimed director Jeong-hyang Lee returns to the big screen after a lengthy absence (her last film was 2002 touching drama The Way Home) with a thought provoking look at what appears to be a simple subject but develops into a contentious moral issue. Lee is careful not to use this story as a way to force feed her own feelings down the viewer’s throat (as catholic herself), instead presents both sides of the argument to present a rounded and compelling case for one to ponder.

Da-Hye receives plenty of support from the church concerning her forgiveness of Sang-Woo’s juvenile killer but others around her, namely Sang-Woo’s family, don’t share her views on clemency. The filming of her documentary initially startles Da-Hye when some of her interview subjects fail to share her merciful outlook, pointing out that as the victims or relatives of the victims their feelings and rights seem to have been brushed under the carpet as the criminals often received reduced sentences. To offer an alternate point of view for Da-Hye’s tenets is Ji-Min (Nam Ji-hyun), younger sister of a friend of Sang-Woo’s friend Ji-Suk (Song Chang-Ui) who rocks up one night with a bruise on her face. Ji-Min is constantly beaten by her father, a respected judge, and has nothing but contempt for him for his actions, but good Catholic girl Da-Hye refuses to believes this and scolds the youngster for disrespecting her family. Even when the beatings get worse and Da-Hye gets a front row seat when big brother Ji-Suk raises his hand to his little sister, Ji-Min doesn’t get the support she needs, hence the various discussion they have on the issue of easy forgiveness. Over time the gravity of Ji-Min’s plight eventually gets through to Da-Hye but is it too late?

There is a neat connection between the two in that on the night Sang-Woo was killed, he left Da-Hye to pick up a drunken Ji-Suk, unaware that Ji-Min had got there first which would have changed everything. Ji-Min carries this guilt around with her every day while Ji-Suk clearly doesn’t which adds further fuel to the fire of conflict Da-Hye is confronted with. Much like the viewer, Da-Hye is presented with a number of opposing views and developments for her to review the idea of forgiveness and how the victim’s rights are perceived in this matter to make up her own mind without religious guidance, which is her usual crutch for the most part of the movie. Lee wisely resists the temptation to be heavy handed with the info dump, using the anecdotal interviews and arguments between Da-Hye and Ji-Min as a means to further the debate. It is with the various layers of the story by which the film gets bogged down, with too much going on once to hamper the flow of the narrative.

While the thread of Ji-Min’s abuse is a difficult subject to depict for any filmmaker, it is unfortunately one of the cornier aspects of this film. Ji-min’s mother keeps blaming Ji-Min for being a troublemaker when she isn’t while her father goes from zero to violently apoplectic in 0.01 seconds and belts Ji-Min just for breathing. And Ji-Suk he’s not above the odd slap too also singing from the same hymn sheet proclaiming Ji-Min had it coming. This creates a sense of frustration for the viewer to see everyone seemingly accepting this as normal behaviour, especially Da-Hye who surely should be more charitable as a good child of God?

Lee’s script may be a little overloaded at times but she is blessed to have two competent actresses to bring her characters alive. Song Hye-Kyo is tasked with keeping Da-Hye’s chin up while her beliefs are tested which she does so in a nuanced manner, while Nam Ji-hyun equips herself admirably with the difficult role of troubled punch bag Ji-Min. The film rest squarely on both their shoulders and they carry the weight with aplomb.

A Reason To Live has an intriguing and worthy premise to get the audience thinking and overall, presents its case in a slow burning but dramatic enough manner without resorting to lecturing the viewer. The story may take a few wrong turns here and there but with the general impact being an effective one, I think Lee can be forgiven for that!