As its title suggests, “Bleak Night” is a grim slice of Korean indie drama, which marks the debut of writer director Yoon Sung Hyun. Remarkably, the film was actually Yoon’s graduation project from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, though it certainly never feels anything like a student production, showing an impressive maturity and dark emotional complexity. As a result, the film was the subject of considerable critical acclaim, both at home and abroad, winning the New Currents award at the 2010 Pusan Film Festival, thanks in part to a talented cast of young actors that includes Lee Je Hoon (“Just Friends”), Seo Jun Young (“Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho”) and Hee Joon (Park Jung Min), with actor Jo Sung Ha (“Yellow Sea”) in a supporting adult role.
The film is framed by Jo as the father of high school student Gi Tae (Lee Je Hoon), who is trying to track down his son’s friends in the aftermath of his apparent suicide, attempting to understand why he took his life. At the same time, the relationship between Gi Tae and his best friends Dong Yoon (Seo Jun Young) and Hee Joon (Park Jung Min) plays out through flashbacks, revealing a tragic story of deteriorating friendships and bullying.
“Bleak Night” really isn’t a film about friendship. Instead, Yoon Sung Hyun goes down a far braver and more difficult route, by charting the ambiguous and painful bonds which tie together the three boys, which go far beyond simple camaraderie. Through this, it lays bare some very uncomfortable truths, showing how people often cling together due to loneliness or a need for security rather than actual connections. The film does cover some very tough ground, aiming for real misery as opposed to the usual teen angst, though in an even handed manner, focusing on the pain of being ignored, and on bullying as a means of getting attention. The relationship and dynamics between the protagonists shift constantly, with pent up emotions and feelings being hinted at as things gradually worsen and awkwardness gives way to violence.
Shot using a handheld camera, the film certainly has an authentic feel, with Yoon achieving gritty realism through some barren landscapes which appropriately reflect the characters’ despair. Painted mainly with greys and pale colours, the film is atmospheric and tense, with an ominous, foreboding air that leaves the viewer in no doubt that it is building towards something unpleasant. The film does meander somewhat, and at nearly two hours is perhaps a little long, with long stretches of male posturing and anger, though Yoon holds the interest and keeps things moving at a decent pace.
The narrative structure itself works reasonably well, though the use of Gi Tae’s father as a means of pushing the story forward does flounder a bit during the later stages, especially since it’s obvious that Yoon is interested almost exclusively in the emotional aspects of the film rather than playing it as any kind of detective story. In this respect, some viewers may be frustrated by the film’s deliberately ambiguous and occasionally obtuse approach, with very little being provided in the way of answers. This is compensated for by some very powerful performances from the superb young cast, with Lee Je Hoon in particular making a real mark as the emotionally unstable Gi Tae, a difficult and multi-layered role which effectively holds the film together.
Certainly, both Lee Je Hoon and Yoon Sung Hyun are talents to look out for in the future, and help to confirm “Bleak Night” one of the better Korean independent films of the last year. Dark and gripping, the film makes for a hard-hitting, horribly believable picture of tortured and torturing youth.
Sung-Hyun Yoon (director) / Sung-Hyun Yoon (screenplay)
CAST: Je-hoon Lee