“Deep Blue Night” is a welcome re-release of one of the key Korean films of the 1980s. The film was directed by Bae Chang Ho, one of the country’s top and most enduring talents, who has recently returned to form with “The Road”. Based on a novel by the acclaimed Korean writer Choi In Ho, as well as being a commercial hit back in its day, the film won many awards, and has long been considered a classic.
After a startling opening scene which shows him making love to a woman in the desert of Death Valley before beating her and leaving her for dead, the film follows Baek Ho Bin (the prolific Ahn Sung Ki, who also featured in several of Bae’s other works, as well as starring in films for the likes of Lee Myung Se (“The Duelist”)) to Los Angeles, where he enters into a marriage of convenience with Jane (Jang Mi Hee), a Korean woman, herself an American citizen who now makes her living helping others to get green cards. Although Ho Bin’s plan is to bring his wife and child to America, matters become more complicated when Jane begins to fall in love with him, something which proves to have tragic consequences for all concerned.
Cultural barriers and differences unsurprisingly play an important role in “Deep Blue Night”, and the film depicts how these affect the lives of the characters in a multitude of ways, from language difficulties to ideas on the treatment of children. The American dream, here characterised by materialism and the relentless pursuit of money is starkly portrayed as an empty, hollow ideal which transforms people in the worst possible way. The quest for the green card is shown as being far from simple, with immigrants having to go through many ordeals at the hands of government officials, facing thinly veiled racism not only from them, but also from American society in general. Obviously, such issues are still very much current today, and this gives the film a real air of relevance despite it having been made some twenty years ago.
This having been said, Bae never lets the film dwell on any rose-tinted yearnings for Korea, focusing solely on the characters and their moral confusion and compromises. The story is a dark and depressing one, tinged with tragedy throughout, and with a constant tension that comes from the certainty that a happy ending is unlikely. However, whilst neither Jane nor Ho Bin are free from sin, with both having committed crimes in their determination to live the American way, Bae treats them and their plight with a great sense of humanity and sympathy, never passing judgement on their many lapses.
Since “Deep Blue Night” is filled with lies and deceptions from the first frame, the relationship which builds between the two main characters is a fascinating one, and although it is believable as a result of having grown largely from a shared cultural isolation, the viewer is never quite sure whether either is being genuine. As such, the film touches on noir territory, especially towards the end when disturbing secrets come to light and the threat of violence looms.
One of the main reasons why the film works so well is the way in which Bae manages to juggle the narrative and thematic elements, never sacrificing one for the other and ensuring that “Deep Blue Night” functions both as meaningful social commentary, and on a more basic level as engrossing and entertaining human drama. By keeping things simple, and allowing the film to revolve wholly around the characters themselves, the story is all the more compelling, and grips right through to the fittingly downbeat and shocking climax.
“Deep Blue Night” also benefits from Bae’s strong, raw direction, as well as from excellent performances by both of the leads. Ahn in particular is impressing as the complex, ruthless Ho Bin, clearly marked as a man torn between two conflicting cultures and ways of life. It is this kind of depth which has allowed “Deep Blue Night” to stand the test of time, and it remains every bit as powerful and vital as it did on its original release. Bitterly moving and painfully human, the film well deserves its reputation as a classic of Korean cinema, and being just one of his many great works, confirms Bae’s status as a director of high regard.
Chang-ho Bae (director) / In-ho Choi (screenplay)
CAST: Sung-kee Ahn … Baek, Ho-min
Mi-hie Jang … Jane