ROTTERDAM — No, the kids most certainly aren’t all right in Bleak Night, an impressive analysis of teenage discontent by 29-year-old debutant writer/director/editor Yoon Sung-Hyun. A strikingly accomplished film-academy graduation project, this study of the shifting dynamics at play among three high-school friends was perhaps the most widely-admired Tiger competitor at th Rotterdam festival among public and critics, though this consensus popularity didn’t translate to a prize. This unapologetically serious enterprise is a safe bet for festivals of all stripes, with particular obvious appeal to those foregrounding East Asian cinema and young-adult-themed work.
Yoon is now prominent among a highly promising next-generation of South Korean film-makers building on the achievements of internationally recognized names such as Kim Ki-Duk, Park Chan-Wook, Lee Chang-Dong and Bong Joon-Ho.
At home, Yoon remains much less well known than several members of his cast, drawn from the ranks of Korea’s more popular young performers, adding to the picture’s domestic appeal. And while they’re visibly a little older than the characters they’re playing, their convincing portrayals soon render this only a passing distraction as events unfold in steady, absorbing style over the course of two relatively brisk hours.
First among equals is Lee Je-Hoon, whose Gi-Tae is the showiest role. Smilingly genial on the surface, Gi-Tae is revealed as a calculating manipulator, playing on others’ weaknesses to cement his own Alpha-male status within his school’s volatile pecking order.
This brings him into conflict with his supposed “best” friends, the sensitively introspective ‘Becky’ (Park Jeong-Min) and the more self-confident, self-assertive Dong-Yoon (Seo Jun-Yeong). The shifting loyalties and allegiances – and their consequences – are somewhat hard to follow, thanks to the ambitious, time-hopping nature of Yoon’s screenplay and editing, which are structured around attempts by Gi-Tae’s bereaved father (Jo Seong-Ha) to find out why his son took his life.
No single motive emerges for the tragedy, and while this may frustrate audiences seeking pat answers, it’s certainly a deliberate and valid choice on Yoon’s part as suicides are inevitably complex affairs. If nothing else, it’s intriguing to find a tale of bullying and teen suicide where it’s the bully, rather than the bullied, who emerges as the real victim (without Yoon in any way justifying or endorsing Gi-Tae’s earlier callous behavior.)
Using hand-held, high-definition video and a grittily steely visual aesthetic – one key location, an abandoned railway station, is repeatedly revisited to considerable atmospheric effect – Yoon creates and develops an authentic-feeling milieu where plot and character developments consistently feel organic rather than contrived for effect.
Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Tiger Competition)
Production company: Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA Films)
Cast: Lee Je-Hoon, Seo Jun-Yeong, Park Jung-Min, Bae Je-Kee, Lee Cho-Hee
Director/screenwriter/editor: Yoon Sung-Hyun
Producers: Yoon Sung-Hyun, Byun Bong-Sun
Director of photography: Byun Bong-Sun
Production designer: Kang Young-Soo
Music: Park Min-June
Sales: CJ Entertainment, Seoul
No rating, 116 minutes