A group of high school boys are walking, smoking cigarettes. The shot is blurry. A boy is hit, kicked, assaulted by a bully–one of our main characters. The camera focuses, we can see his face. A close up shot–our other two main characters. But who is being hit?
Skyline. Dull apartment buildings. A joyless sky. A middle-aged man is sitting on a swing, staring blankly. The sun is shining. Sudden change of frame, a group of normal, rowdy boys in a classrom, playing around with one another, enjoying themselves. One of our main characters refuses to join, which prompts the other one to wonder why. He asks if there’s something wrong between him and their mutual friend, the one that we see beating up a boy in the beginning of the movie. He doesn’t budge, keeps a straight face, “It’s nothing,” he says. “Really.”
That’s actually the tone of the whole film, it’s ambiguous, it’s raw, it’s bleak. None of the characters ever gives you a full explanation of what’s happening. We come to find out that the lonely man who was sitting on a swing has just lost his son, and is trying to find out what leads to his untimely death. But you are not going to find a detective story, no big plot twist in the end to shock you, nothing definite.
Some people might have blithesome adolescent memories, but I think most can recall the uncertainty and ambiguity, the search for your own ‘identity’ back in those days. Your adolescence plays a big part in your life, it’s one of life’s first acting lessons–you create your own identity, your own persona. Which one are you? The popular jock? The nerd? The bullied? The invisible? Every high school student has his place, has his character to play in the big drama. But who are you, really? Are you the character that you play? Who defines you? Yourself, or how other people perceive you?
Gi Tae is a bully. He’s got his entourage always ready behind his back, always there to defend him, making sure that the alpha gets what he wants. He’s good looking, yet somehow unlikeable, like most bullies are. But scene by scene, the audience begins to realize that it’s all a mask, a bluff driven by nothing but his insecurities. Unlike his friends, Gi Tae doesn’t have a mother and rarely see his father. The only thing he’s got is his role as the man. He needs to have everyone under his control. He needs to be the MVP. He wants the world to look at him.
Dong Yoon has been best friends with Gi Tae for years. In high school, the quiet Hee Joon joins. The tree of them spend a lot of time together, at school, after school, smoking, talking, playing baseball at a barren rail station–a place continuosly visited by the characters in different situations, an unchanged reminder of memories. But then we find out that Gi Tae has committed suicide. Gi Tae’s father tries to track his friends, finding it very odd that one of his best friends, Hee Joon, transferred schools a few weeks before his son’s death and his other best friend, Dong Yoon, didn’t even show up at the funeral. He’s not accusing anybody, he just wants to talk. Probably an attempt to get to know his son, however belated. Does he want closure?
The film doesn’t make it possible for us to point any one personnel to blame for Gi Tae’s death. No big revelation, but rather a gradual process of how the relationship of the characters fall apart throughout the whole film. The introvert Hee Joon is probably fed up being treated like a ‘bitch’ by Gi Tae, who always talks down on him, ordering him around. Dong Yoon is pissed by how Gi Tae treats Hee Joon and when Gi Tae caused a problem in Dong Yoon’s relationship with his girlfriend, he decides he has had enough with him as well. Following Hee Joon’s steps, Dong Yoon leaves him. “Please don’t do this,” Gi Tae pleads. Dong Yoon looks at him disdainfully, “Don’t think I was ever your friend.”
So whose fault is it? Are Dong Yoon and Hee Joon to blame, for leaving Gi Tae? For being sham friends? Have they really been fake? Or are they just hurt, saying things they don’t really mean? Is it really Gi Tae’s own fault all along, for being a bully? In the end, everyone is scarred.
The film doesn’t give you a heartwarming closure at the end. No catharsis, nothing is justified, nothing is solved. The ending scene breaks your heart, leaves a lump in your throat. And when the end credits roll, you’re left feeling choked.
Written, directed and produced by Yoon Sung Hyun, this film is actually his final exam from the Korean Film Academy. The moves of a handheld camera and the bleak, dull tone of the film fits the story perfectly. The film constantly moves back and forth, demanding your concentration to gather and put the pieces together, yet never distracts you from the soul of the film itself. The absence of music also greatly enhances the realness of it. As always, I am drawn to character-driven films and this is one prime example of how engaging such a film can be. Lee Je Hoon portrayed Gi Tae with such ease, we can’t even decide whether to hate or pity the character. And surprisingly, Hee Joon is actually Park Jung Min’s first ever role. This film reminds me of Breathless, Yang Ik Joon’s indie film released back in 2008, an impressive, unforgettable work. South Korea should be proud to have such soulful filmmakers like Yang and Yoon and I can only hope that they continue their craft for a long time.
Bleak Night is not a film about a crime, nor is it about identifying the bad guy and the victim. Instead, it makes you think about yourself, the ramification of emotions and vulnerability of an adolescent, or just a human being in general. Relationships, communication, perceptions of a person’s identity. It’s the kind of film that sticks with you, haunts you, long after the end credits finish.