BLEAK NIGHT (2010)
A compelling and confronting debut outing of polished maturity, as a father searches for answers in the wake of his high-school son’s sudden death
At just 29-years-old, writer-director-editor Yoon Sung-Hyun has produced a film-academy graduation project that possesses the confidence and mastery of an old hand refining long-term skills and issues.
While the Korean Academy of Film Arts can take a slice of credit for honing the skills of the likes of Bong Joon-ho and Im Sang-soo, it will delight in the ability of Yoon to come bounding out of their blocks with this dark but powerful debut.
We never know what someone is grappling with in life until we have walked in their shoes. While we assume this cliché tells us to be patient with those who are hushed or indifferent, in Bleak Night Yoon wills us to empathise with a full-blooded bully.
That bully is masterfully depicted onscreen by a young Lee Je-hoon, who plays the aggressive but ultimately broken high school student Ki-tae. In the aftermath of his sudden suicide, his father (Jo Sung-ha) is desperate for answers.
We then jump between Ki-tae's final days and his father’s post-death meetings with his school friends as he tries to make sense of losing his externally confident and popular son.
Ki-tae is shown as a bully to his closely friends, particularly to the quiet ‘Becky’ (Park Jung-min), who he attacks alongside other members of their group. Seeing Ki-tae's treatment of Becky, another friend, the more forthright Dong-yoon (Seo Jun-young) steps in and takes Ki-tae to task.
We gradually learn more about Ki-tae's final days, just as his father interviews various friends in the current, to learn what could have driven the intimidator of his friends to turn the violence on himself in one final drastic act.
It is the bully who is insecure and pained, we are often told. A soundbite used to comfort their victims, but offering scant future protection. Bleak Night takes such advice literally though, understanding Ki-tae as a victim of his own misfortune. A suffering that he now wants to inflict on others.
The vital point is that we do not see Ki-tae attack the school weakling. It is his friends that he targets. While he does this with such fury and confidence, we see flickers of regrets in his actions. That his affection for his friends is misfiring and leaning towards the violence Ki-tae knows too well.
You soon forget Bleak Night is the work of a 29-year old film school graduate. Everything is so masterfully handled. The close conflict camerawork that places us within this group of disenfranchised young men. A script of ripe experience and realistic interactions. And a superb spread of acting performances.
Perhaps at 29 and without the jaded back story of a more experienced filmmaker, Yoon was well placed to produce a film about teenage discontent that appears like a polished feature, yet contains a deep understanding of how some young men interact.
Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45. The question we ask after those tragic deaths is what could lead this to happen. Bleak Night reminds us that the signs are hard to find, but we must continue to search for them in the hardest of places.