Night Flight: HKIFF Review

A typically brutal high school drama with a fresh perspective to add that’s sadly lost to bloat.

South Korea’s preeminent LGBT filmmaker broadens his horizons for his latest effort.

A melodramatic tale of friendship, betrayal, redemption, competitive pressure and identity are among the thorny subjects tackled in Leesong Hee-il’s Night Flight, the feature follow-up to the director’s mostly successful 2013 triptych One Night and Two Days. At this point Leesong has proved he’s not afraid to provoke and positioned himself as one of Korea’s boldest filmmakers. Incorporating Korea’s notoriously competitive high school environment into a story about three high school boys and their deeply entwined histories, Leesong casts a wide thematic net and only partially comes up with a rich catch. Fleetingly visually arresting, generating a respectable level of narrative interest and demonstrating technical polish, Night Flight will have a healthy life on the festival circuit, with Asian and LGBT events almost guaranteed.

At the heart of the story is the decidedly average Yong-ju (Kwak Si-yang), an anonymous but egalitarian kid who somehow slips beneath the school bullies’ radar and remains friends with the resident losers. Yong-ju is also gay and closeted, with a mad crush on the vaguely psychotic Gi-woong (Lee Jae-joon). Yong-ju’s pudgy buddy Gi-taek (Choi Jun-ha) is the victim of regular harassment by the school’s queen bee as it were, Song-jin, who spends his time sucking up to Gi-woong when the latter deigns to attend classes. As school university entrance exams loom, the trio’s allegiances and personal interests clash and their status shifts, even though their fragile friendship goes back to middle school when things were different yet again. At the same time, Yong-ju tries to convince Gi-woong that he’s actually in love with him, Gi-taek lets years of resentment bubble to the surface in a fit of self-preservation and Gi-woong searches for his absentee labor agitator father. The various elements come to a violent head when Yong-ju and Gi-woong are found out, punished in a horrendous bit of sexual brutality (as gays and lesbians in Korean cinema still tend to be) and then attempt to take revenge.

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Night Flight tends to flit back and forth in tone between low-key contemplation on the consequences of living honestly in an atmosphere that will exploit weakness or difference, as Yong-ju’s only gay friend from another school warns him, and more traditional melodramatic storytelling that falls back on the comforts of easy convention (Song-jin is reprehensibly evil, the myth of all gays being HIV-positive rears its ugly head again). Even in a film that is ultimately about the dangers of rocking the social boat, there are simply too many static moments of private meditation that add little to story or character.

Yong-ju’s motivation is often baffling and occasionally provocative—at times he appears to be pushing Gi-woong to define his sexuality when he’s clearly not ready to—and Gi-woong is frequently less mysterious as he is simply opaque. Gi-taek’s betrayals seem slightly out of character, but that may be because his character is paper thin.

Leesong does do a masterful job of depicting a world of casual violence, entitlement and conformity, but the extra threads—leading to Gi-woong’s missing dad, Yong-ju’s single mother and her love life, the good-cop, bad-cop pair of teachers at the school—while all valid and very real stigma many Koreans still deal with, serve only as minor distractions from the core story about the three friends and how homophobia, fear of scholastic failure and a militaristic and rigid social hierarchy are destroying relationships founded on something more pure. Leesong is on to something by turning his camera on the subject of LGBT teens, but loses focus by adding too many extra influences and spending too much time watching Yong-ju and Gi-woong gaze into the distance. Kwak and Lee are fine without being remarkable, though Choi suffers for being underwritten as well as being saddled with the traditional dramatic plot device that brings about the story’s gruesome coda and finale. Night Flight is by no means an abject failure, it’s blessedly ambitious and moderately affecting overall, but Leesong has raised the bar for himself to such a level that merely being okay is a letdown.

Producer: Kim Il-kwon

Director: Leesong Hee-il

Cast: Kwak Si-yang, Lee Jae-joon, Choi Jun-ha, Kim Chang-hwan, Park Hyuk-kwon, Park Mi-hyun

Screenwriter: Leesong Hee-il

Director of Photography: Yoon Ji-woon

Production Designer: Lee Shin-hye

Costume Designer: In Ji-ae

Editor: Leesong Hee-il

World Sales: Finecut

No rating, 144 minutes