'Black Summer': Film Review | Filmart 2018
Quadruple-threat Lee Weonyoung tackles the prejudice and homophobia that lingers in our safe spaces in his feature debut.
Suppressed homosexuality, isolation, performance and, ultimately, punishment (of course) are the driving forces of director Lee Weonyoung’s meandering and fitfully affecting melodrama Black Summer, whose academic backdrop provides all sorts of fodder for a real look at the disconnect between how progressive we think we are and reality. A picture-perfect demonstration of film school 101 aesthetics and structure that would have made a much better short or medium-length film, Black Summer is purely festival and art house fare. The film should make the rounds in Asia-Pacific before finding a place at niche overseas events.
The film is bookended by scenes at the beach, the first one featuring an anonymous thirtysomething man clearly having an introspective moment before flashing back to the day he attended a funeral for a friend. There are some roommates pondering what to do with the dead man’s belongings. There’s a slap across the face from a young woman mourner. It’s all very stagey and rigidly composed. Before long, we meet Jihyeon (Woo Jihyun), a part-time worker at a film school’s technical department who spends his spare time carefully making his own magnum opus. He keeps a notebook handy in which to jot down observations about the people around him, eventually compiling an extensive poetical archive. He reunites with an old school chum, Geonwu (Lee Gunwoo), when he’s auditioning actors, and the two strike up a new kind of friendship that soon turns sexual, bringing with it all sorts of conflicting emotions and confused identities. Before long, news of their relationship spreads across campus, inspiring Jihyeon to make up a story about assaulting Geonwu, taking the blame and bearing the shame. Seeing as Geonwu is the man at the beach, it’s easy to determine Jihyeon’s fate.
There is nothing inherently wrong — or, sadly, inaccurate — about suicide within young LGBT communities, but Black Summer doesn’t build a narrative that puts that sad phenomenon at the center of the story. Instead, writer, director, producer and editor Lee’s focus is, interestingly, on the ironic perception that an institution of higher learning — progressive, liberal and tolerant by default — could somehow harbor bigotry, intolerance and homophobia. It’s a thorny issue worthy of exploring, but Lee takes so much time getting to the point it’s difficult to concentrate, somnolent as much of the film is. Lee fancies himself something of a Kenji Mizoguchi or Hsiao-Hsien Hou — all long, considered takes and quiet contemplation — but sequences ostensibly designed to illustrate the growing affection between Jihyeon and Geonwu simply wind up dragging. There’s a requisite moped ride, anxious car trips, aimless discussions about family and art, and endless lunch gatherings that suck any momentum out of the film and frequently quash what goodwill Lee engenders (an outside editor may have seen the beauty of 90 minutes).
Lee and Woo are mostly convincing as the apprehensive lovers, and Remy Bourgeois’ moody, sometimes prickly score is one of the film’s strengths. Sadly, the only female characters are throwaway girlfriends who are either needy or shrewish; Geonwu’s ex-girlfriend forcibly kisses Jihyeon (“So, you don’t like women?”) rather than wrestle with her feelings. That may be the point — everyone’s reactions are extremes — but the script lacks the nuance to pull it off, even though Black Summer takes its sweet time trying.
Production company: Lee Weonyoung Film
Cast: Woo Jihyun, Lee Gunwoo, Kim Sujin, Lee Gaeun
Director: Lee Weonyoung
Screenwriter: Lee Weonyoung
Producer: Lee Weonyoung
Director of photography: Kim Taeho
Editor: Lee Weonyoung
World sales: Mirovision