A slow burning guilt trip with notions of grandeur, Seven Years of Night finds director Choo Chang-min getting back behind the camera for the first time since his hugely popular period piece Masquerade (2012) to deliver a contemporary tale of grief and retribution that stems from the death of an innocent child. Although adapted from a novel by Jung Yoo-jung, this somber drama will likely draw comparisons with Mystic River (2003), Prisoners (2013), the first season of Broadchurch (2013), or the recent Netflix series Seven Seconds (2018) internationally. As with some of those overwrought procedurals, Seven Years of Night sees every possible dramatic and technical element being marshaled to create a tragic spiral of abject despair.
Events take place in a remote area where security guard Choi Hyun-su (a convincingly beleaguered Ryu Seung-ryong) is relocating with his family to patrol a dam site. At the insistence of his wife, Choi has purchased a spacious apartment in an upscale complex. Unfortunately, his meager salary barely covers the interest payments on the property, so he has accepted a transfer to the outskirts where employee accommodation is provided with the intention of renting out the apartment. Driving out there after dark to see the house following a few drinks, Choi misses the exit and ends up on a back road where he runs over a young girl who suddenly rushes out in front of his vehicle. Making what proves to be a fatal decision, he dumps the body in the nearby lake.
Attempting to resume his mundane life, Choi starts his new posting but suffers from anxiety attacks on the job while vivid nightmares cause him to go sleepwalking without his shoes and howl into the night. Meanwhile, the girl’s father, wealthy dentist and landowner Oh Young-je (Jang Dong-gun), goes on the warpath once his missing daughter’s body is recovered. Although the police conduct a thorough investigation, Oh takes matters into his own hands and concocts an elaborate revenge scenario once he learns the identity of the driver.
By this point, the quest for vengeance has become a stock element of South Korean cinema, but whereas the viewer usually has no trouble rooting for its furious avengers since they are usually portrayed as fundamentally decent types pushed too far by unfortunate circumstances, Oh is a different case entirely. Introduced in the midst of a messy divorce, which he is handling in a coldly manipulative manner, Oh has been physically abusing his daughter to the extent that the coroner notes signs of domestic violence on her body. By having Oh exert revenge on Choi by putting him in a morally impossible scenario involving his son, it could be said that the film turns the ostensible point of audience identification into the villain, although this certainly does not entail that the cowardly Choi becomes a hero by default.
By using the cruel nature of fate to bring Choi and Oh into the same orbit, the film not only compares two deeply flawed father figures from different ends of South Korea’s economic spectrum but also shows how their respective behavioral lapses are judged by society. Shuffling multiple timelines, Choo illustrates how Choi has ended up on death row while public outrage caused by the incident almost ruins the life of Choi’s son, who is being abandoned by his family and taunted at school before being taken in by his father’s sympathetic colleague Seung-Hwan (Song Sae-byeok). Yet, even though his daughter was out on that night as a result of his abusive parenting, Oh never has to answer any questions regarding his culpability. His crimes remain behind closed doors.
When dealing with this terrible situation in a matter of fact manner, Seven Years of Night evidences a compulsive, gut-wrenching power. The score by Koo Ja-wan and Park Ji-man builds an ominous mood while Ha Kyoung-ho’s gloomy cinematography emphasizes psychologically draining close-ups but also finds opportunities for mistily atmospheric landscapes.
However, the film is less sure-footed in its unnecessary supernatural elements, which start out as an intriguing bit of scene setting as Seung-Hwan learns from a co-worker that the lake has been dubbed “Korea’s Atlantis” since it was created by flooding a whole village without bothering to demolish the buildings. Seung-Hwan is an expert diver and his early underwater excursion lends the proceedings an eerily mysterious dimension, but Choo overdoes it by having a peripheral local shaman ranting about possession and including several ghostly encounters. Choi’s traumatic visions also prove distracting, creating flashbacks-within-flashbacks that distract from the main storyline and adding unnecessary levels of duress to an already anxious morality play. Suggestions that these characters and the surrounding community are under some sort of curse are inconsistent with the film’s theme of accepting responsibility for one’s actions.
If this means that Seven Years of Night is overwhelming rather than hard-hitting, it’s nonetheless sufficiently involving to warrant being put through the wringer.