White Night (2009) Movie Review

The Japanese crime novel “Byakuyako” by author Higashino Keigo’s gets its second screen outing with the Korean film “White Night”, having already been adapted for a 2006 domestic television drama. This cinematic version of the dark, harrowing tale of murder and abuse marks the debut of Korean director Park Shin Woo, and stars popular and acclaimed actress Son Ye Jin (also in the likes of “A Moment to Remember” and “The Art of Seduction”) and television actor Ko Su (“Will It Snow For Christmas?”) in the lead roles, with support from Han Suk Kyu (An Eye for an Eye) and Lee Min Jung (“Searching for the Elephant”).

The film gets off to a hard hitting start, intercutting between a sex scene featuring the beautiful Mi Ho (Son Ye Jin) and her fiancé, and shots of a young man called Yo Han (Ko Su) committing a brutal murder. Although these two characters and scenes seem unconnected, as Detective Han (Han Suk Kyu) discovers, they are in fact linked to another killing that took place 14 years back, which is just about to pass beyond the statute of limitations. As Han digs further, his investigation reveals that Mi Ho and Yo Han share a horrific and tragic past, one which threatens to cause yet more bloodshed in the present day.

“White Night” is a deeply complex film with a powerful central mystery, and though it gets off to a slow, and often confusing start, once it gets its claws into the viewer it really refuses to let go. The film is one which doesn’t spoon-feed its answers and which requires a fair amount of concentration, something which, in a time when dumbing down films is the accepted norm, makes for a refreshing and stimulating change. Often leaping around its timeframe without much warning, and featuring plenty of character reversals and murky motivations, it also benefits from focusing its plot not around who has committed the present day murders, but why. This leaves Park free from having to employ any unnecessary or artificial plot twists, and the film works not only as a highly intelligent detective thriller, but also as an involving and moving character drama, with both Mi Ho and Yo Han making for intriguing, ambiguous figures.

Since the two, and indeed most of the cast are tortured and emotionally damaged, with even Detective Han having sorrowful secrets of his own, the film does unsurprisingly head for some very dark places, and makes for grim viewing through to its bleak, downbeat conclusion. At the same time, director Park wisely never takes a judgemental approach to any of the characters or events, and this makes the film both morally challenging and heart rending, being ultimately about love and devotion, albeit in the most depression of fashions. All of the cast are up to the challenge of the material, with Son Ye Jin in particular turning in a brave, multi layered performance that effectively provides the film with its touching, yet twisted emotional core.

The film engages the eyes as well as the mind, with Park’s direction being elegant and impressively stylish in the modern noir manner and featuring some impeccable and quite beautiful shot compositions. Such a handsome and deceptively quiet veneer works well to provide a comparison with the darkness lurking beneath the film’s surface, as does the delicate classical music soundtrack. The film does pack in a lot of adult content, as befits its themes, with a fair amount of graphic sex, as well as some creative and gruesome murder scenes. This gives the proceedings a hard edge, as does the fact that the film is pleasingly ruthless with its characters, killing off a number of sympathetic figures at suitably unexpected moments. As a result, it makes for tense, exciting viewing, with the last forty five minutes providing genuinely edge of the seat entertainment.

All of this combines to make “White Night” one of the best Korean films of the last year, and certainly one of the few mystery thrillers not to patronise its audience with easy answers or comfortable resolutions. Directed and composed with a real sense of craftsmanship, the film grips from the first frame, and though it doesn’t exactly make for cheerful viewing, it entertains and satisfies all the way to its admirably dark conclusion.

Shin-woo Park (director) / Shin-woo Park (screenplay), Keigo Higashino (original novel)
CAST: Suk-kyu Han … Han, Dong-soo
Ye-jin Son … Yu Mi-ho
Soo Go … Kim Yo-han
Kyeong-sook Jo … Mi-sook Yang
Da-Yeong Ju … Ji-ah
Jong-won Lee … Seung-jo

Buy White Night on DVD