It’s surprising what can be done with little resources. In 2011, a year filled with high falutin’, hollow, and very disappointing blockbusters, there were many films that did just that, surprise the audience. One in particular managed to do the most with the least. The Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA) has been training some of the peninsula’s best talent since the 1980s, including Bong Joon-ho, Im Sang-soo, and Kim Tae-gyun, and these days, as it produces four feature-length projects per year, the Academy looks set to develop an even larger pool of talent. Not long ago I discussed the importance of Korean film schools in a piece on the Korean National University of Arts (K’Arts) short Metamorpheses. The technical competence of Korean films is due in no small part to the high quality film academies in the country and this becomes only more evident now that the student-produced shorts and features from these institutions gain wider exposure.
Bleak Night is one of KAFA’s student features and, going into the film it’s hard to say that knowing this didn’t completely change the way I looked at it. I’m generally not a fan of student films and not just because of low production values and a lack of experience. Oftentimes, they are pretentious, lazy, and/or cocky and rather than being diamonds in the rough, they are frequently vanity projects from people who either don’t have what it takes or have no intention of trying to make a career out of filmmaking. Let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, this is the purpose that film societies at college universities serve and the world is all the better for it, however I would rather not subject myself to these less than enticing offerings. I also speak from experience, as I too was one of these cocky student filmmakers in my Dublin salad days.
There have been more technically proficient student films out of Korea; the aforementioned Metamorpheses is an excellent example of polygeneric adroitness. On the other hand, Bleak Night has what few films possess, no matter how experienced or talented the makers are; it is an extremely mature work. The characters are few, the plot is simple, and the setting is familiar but they belie a complex and devastating character study with reminded me of the eye-opening and cathartic realism I experienced when I saw The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005).
Lazarescu was the first Romanian film I saw and still stands as my favorite European film made after the turn of the millennium. The films that came out of Romania at that time achieved something that I had never experienced before. A friend and I, after being blindsided by Lazarescu following a random screening selection at the 2006 Dublin International Film Festival, hailed it as ‘the death of postmodernism!’ We were over-excited film students who tended to roll our eyes at the mere mention of ‘postmodernism’ or other woefully over-loaded academia terms like the ‘Lacanian mirror stage’. Lazarescu, and the films that followed, such as 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), came as a breath of fresh air as they seemed honest, straightforward, and devoid of intellectualism, yet they were still exceptionally complex.
The biggest liberty that Bleak Night takes in its film style is its fragmented chronology which jumps to and fro without warning. Titles and exposition can seem contrived, but unsignalled time jumps can be far more dangerous if the audience can’t figure out what’s going on. Thankfully, the young filmmakers give us just enough information to keep our footing and more importantly respects us enough to allow us to figure some things out for ourselves. In fact, a great deal of the film’s success derives from this risky trait. We are never told what has happened and we are required to trust ourselves to understand what is going on during moments we don’t see and to decipher unuttered thoughts in the protagonists’ minds.
I don’t want to say too much about the film as I think it is better to let it reveal itself to you, but essentially there are three friends, some bullying, and a suicide which serves as the starting point of the narrative, but not of the story. Lee Je-hoon, as the bully Gi-tae who kills himself, has won several newcomer awards for his lead role in Bleak Night and his supporting turn in the war epic The Front Line (2011) and, sure enough, his performance is nothing short of a revelation. In his role, he is completely grounded and never falls into the easy trap of overacting. He says so much with his few words and even more with his silences; he reveals the truth about his character little by little, always taking you by surprise but never forsaking credibility. He reminds me of a younger and more subtle Ryoo Seung-beom (The Unjust, 2010; Suicide Forecast, 2011), an actor whom I like very much, and can only see great things in the future.
Friendship lies at the heart of Bleak Night or at least what defines the bond between friends. At different points in the narrative, the three friends fight and betray each other. They move through different circles, one going so far as to transfer out of school, yet at times they are also extremely loyal and share their free time together, throwing an old baseball around at an abandoned train station (itself a foreboding metaphor for their youthful, transient relationships). There are other boys in the school who are part of the group during school hours in the classroom and the trio also have families, though Gi-tae has no mother and seems to fend for himself, but Bleak Night never dwells on the characters’ lives outside of the group, a rare and welcome change from the melodramatic tendencies of Korean cinema.
29-year old writer and director Yoon Sung-hyun excels with his debut feature, demonstrating a subtle but commanding grasp of his characters. His (justified) confidence as a filmmaker allows him to strip out any flourishes leaving a bare bones mise-en-scene which eschews music and ostentatious cinematography in favor of intimate character framing, well-timed silences, and an austere, dark, but also gorgeous color palette which creeps under your skin. A superb film from emerging talents which is not to be missed.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.