Bleak Night (Cert 15)
1 Disc (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 117 minutes approx.
A man, (Jo Sung-Ha), is searching for answers as to why his teenage son Ki-Tae (Lee Je-Hoon) committed suicide. Having never been there for his son, it falls to a photograph of Ki-Tae with two other boys, Dong-Yoon (Seo Jun-Young) and Baek “Becky” Hee-Joon (Park Jung-Min) to give the man a starting block on which to begin his investigation.
School bullying has proven to be a favourite topic for Korean filmmakers yet the issue remains a prevalent one in real life on a global scale. This debut outing from Yoon Sung-Hyun, which was originally a graduation project for the Korean Academy of Film Arts, offers a stark but engaging – if overlong – look into the minds and relationships of Korean teens, with a tale of how even the strongest bonds can be broken.
The film kicks off with a group of unnamed boys beating up another student followed by more scenes of shameless bullying in a direct yet unsubtle way to introduce one the film’s central themes. Ki-Tae tries to get Becky involved in the classroom antics but he is rebuffed, a move which is taken personally. The more Ki-Tae presses the issue the further Becky stays away from him, so Ki-Tae forces the issue by stealing Becky’s school bag and have him meet up to reclaim it, the night ending in a fight. When Dong-Yoon learns of this he sides with Becky but unlike their quite friend Dong-Yoon has no problem with physically standing up to Ki-Tae if necessary.
Told via flashbacks which don’t adhere to chronology we learn of the good days in the trio’s relationship when they were all on the same page, enjoyed each other’s company and tension was almost non-existent. So what changed? This is part of the problem as the catalyst is so innocent to the point of being negligible that it isn’t immediately clear why there is an issue. However the masterstroke of the writing is in wrong footing the audience into recognising who the actual bully of the story is and why it should lead to suicide. Typically girls are also involved, with Becky acting shyly around a girl who likes him while Dong-Yoon ends up with Se-Jung (Lee Cho-Hee), who is plays the role of unwitting pawn in the grand demise of the relationship.
Despite the presence of these familiar, nay essential, conventions which dictate the rites of passage for every teenage lad, the focus is very much on the characters themselves and how they react to the situations as they evolve. Ki-tae is something of a wannabe with a group of hangers on at school in front of whom he acts the big shot, yet it is Becky and Dong-Yoon with whom he socialises, confides in and trusts the most. Perhaps it is their reluctance to play the role of minion to their friend believing they should be on an equal footing that upsets Ki-Tae but clearly the group dynamic is a fated one.
Unfortunately a key issue which is never explored and leaves the story feel unfinished is the relationship between Ki-Tae and his father. Aside from a brief admission from Ki-Tae that his mother has “gone” and he rarely sees his father, we know nothing about their bond, or why it took his son’s suicide for his father to take an interest in his son. What should have been a core plot point is reduce to a mere thread around which the main story dances.
Eventually what unfolds is a tragic tale of not being able to communicate properly and using the wrong methods to get attention. Whether Ki-Tae is merely following suit from his father or has a psychological issue to explain his behaviour is again left for the audience to interpret – no answers are given here. What is interesting to observe is how the Becky and Dong-Yoon feel no remorse or culpability for Ki-Tae’s death, but again as the story reveals itself perhaps they are right to think that way, perhaps they are not.
The evidence of this film having it’s origins in a student graduation piece (to be found in the extras on this DVD) is on the screen for all to see, with the handheld camerawork which is intimate and often invasive, the use natural lighting, and a lack of musical soundtrack. This creates a pervasive sense of voyeurism in the audience such is the no frills, low key approach to the production.
Similarly the performances are rich with natural nuances and raw emotion, with a palpable sense of teenage angst, anger and disillusionment exuded from each performer, despite the three principles all being in their mid-late 20’s at the time of filming. It’s difficult to single out any one of the three leads for praise as they all have different and important roles to play, but Lee Je-Hoon is the one whose character, Ki-tae, undergoes the most changes here thus has a more challenging task to fulfil.
As much as there is a deep and resonant story to tell, the film begins to lose its lustre in the third act and drags noticeably. Most of the key points have been made by this juncture yet instead of aiming for closure and resolution Yoon Sung-Hyun seems keen to add more to the story. And even though we know how the story ends, and with many questions remaining unanswered, the final scene is still able to strike a cold chill with acute precision.
Bleak Night tackles many relevant social issues in one film but doesn’t feel burdened by them, making for an effective essay that looks deep into the people affected the most by the awkward trials and tribulations of teenage boys’ lives. A slow burner and a little ponderous in places for its own good, its emotional impact and haunting honesty is undeniable.
Boys –Short Film
Rating – ****
Man In Black