Friday, August 10, 2012

2012 KOFFIA Review: Bleak Night (Yoon Sung-Hyun, 2010)

Bleak Night, originally created as a graduation project for the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA), is written and directed by Yoon Sung-Hyun and premiered at the 2010 Pusan International Film Festival. It is puzzling to learn that it has not received an international release outside of film festivals, because this remarkable work needs to be seen by more people. Australia is lucky enough to have a chance to catch the engrossing drama when it screens as part of the Korean Film Festival in Australia later in the month.

Bleak Night opens with a scene of a group of schoolboys standing around in a park watching one of the group beat up a schoolmate. The faces of the attacker and the victim are not made clear as the hand-held camera darts through the group, though we can make out several witnesses looking on morosely. The next scene is one set in a classroom. While most of the boys in the class are yelling and messing around, one boy, Hee-Joon or ‘Becky’ (Park Jung-Min), sits at his desk alone, and ignores the request of one of his friends, Dong-Yoon (Seo Jun-Young) to come and join them. Is Becky this class' bullied child? Later sequences would have one assume that he is. He wasn’t the one being beaten up in the first scene, though.

In the next scene, we see Dong-Yoon ask another student, Gi-Tae (Lee Je-Hoon), what’s going on between he and Becky. The three appear to be close, but must have had a falling out. Gi-Tae claims it to be complicated, and not to worry about it. We are then introduced to a bereaved father (Jo Sung-ha), in what is revealed to be the present day, whose teenage son has recently committed suicide. He feels a heavy sense of guilt and confusion over his son’s death, as he was largely absent from his life, and seeks out his son’s friends for some answers.

Though it is assumed to be one of the three boys introduced in these early sequences, it is initially not clear which one has taken his own life. When we learn, it is quite a shock. What happened between these three former friends? As we learn, quite a lot, and themes of family ties, broken friendships, betrayal and guilt, youthful despair and angst and the desire to establish and maintain reputation at whatever the cost are addressed.

There are a series of interviews between the father and the friends, and in extension between these students and other students interwoven with flashbacks chronicling the friendship between the three boys, their experiences together at school and the series of events that led to the dissolution of the friendship and this tragedy. The intelligent structuring ensures the layered narrative progresses on two levels: in the present and the past – and the way the flashbacks are introduced is masterful. They never alter the flow of the storytelling, but aid the viewer by both filling in gaps and furthering the narrative by providing more intrigue.

We learn how this event has affected the boys through their conversations with the father, but also understand, through the flashbacks, why they have reacted in the way they have. We are revealed to varying perspectives on a sequence; and nothing is ever obviously stated. It is left to interpretation, an understanding of teenage angst - repressed homosexual tendencies, jealousy over female friends, shifting allegiances and misguided over-aggression - and careful observation of these characters to determine how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way.

The environment established is one of suppressed aggression. Though the boys share plenty of pleasant moments together – baseball down by the abandoned railway, and accompanying some female friends on a day trip - they always seem to be on a different frequency. This is especially notable of Gi-Tae, who appears to be attention seeking and frequently desires commendation. The other two appear to be less unhinged, and content to let Gi-Tae be their leader.

The complexity of these characters is beautifully realized in the subtlety of the writing, but also through the intimate hand-held camera work. This is some of the best cinematography of this nature I have seen in a long time. It situates the viewer directly within every sequence, utilizing close-up and darting back and forth between characters, rather than capturing them all from a distance; implicating us in what is going on and making us feel like we are one of the schoolmates looking on. As a result we are privileged to every emotion left on the face of the characters, and gather so much knowledge about their individual conflicts and fractured psyches purely by the camera lingering on them. Some of these exchanges are so emotionally charged, and so well performed by the young cast, that they feel uncomfortably convincing.

Special mention must go to the outstanding performances of Lee Je-Hoon, Park Jung-Min and Seo Jun-Young as the three friends. Je-Hoon, in particular, is phenomenal, shifting between aggressive outbursts in the comfort of his cronies to lonely heartbreaking regret almost immediately after. One can feel his disgust at himself, and sympathize with him, but also completely understand the reciprocated actions of his friends. The supporting cast is excellent too.

We have all been through high-school, experienced drama and lost friends over differences, and this will really shake a viewer who can relate in any way. Not only is it relevant and topical, it is also stellar filmmaking. It is effortlessly riveting, thoughtfully structured and directed and emotionally affecting. It also squeezes in a tremendous amount of youth-related issues, while keeping everything understated, allowing the audience to process the puzzle and come out of the film with their personal interpretation of what happened. As Yoon Sung-hyun's debut feature film, and he was awarded Best New Director at Grand Bell Awards and Blue Dragon Film Awards, this immediately makes him a director to watch out for in the future.

Bleak Night is one of the best Korean films I have seen to date, and I highly recommend checking it out. It is screening at Dendy Opera Quays on Saturday 25th August at 2.15pm. I have purposefully tried not to reveal too much about the plot, because I feel it holds more reward for those unacquainted with the details. Just let this absorbing drama unfold and marvel at the film's atmosphere, the growth in tension and the incredibly concise way that the dual time periods are balanced.

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