'Winter's Night': Film Review | Tallinn 2018

Bomnae Films
Now is the winter of their discontent.

A middle-aged married couple are haunted by the ghosts of their long-lost love in Korean writer-director Jang Woo-jin's third feature.

Hitting emotional grace notes that belie his relatively tender years, 33-year-old South Korean auteur/director Jang Woo-jin offers a bittersweet rumination on love, marriage and midlife disillusionment in this quietly enchanting third feature. A talk-heavy chamber piece crafted with artful economy and a light sprinkle of magical realism, Winter's Night has just had its international premiere at Black Nights film festival in Tallinn, and it ticks all the right boxes for further festival bookings. Like Jang's previous seasonally themed marital drama Autumn (2016), this one may also charm its way onto art house screens in the U.S. and other markets.

On a frosty evening in the mountainous tourist town of Chuncheon, 50-ish couple Eun-ju (Seo Young-hwa) and Heung-ju (Yang Heung-ju) are heading home by taxi when Eun-ju discovers she has mislaid her cellphone. She seems frantic and bereft, hinting at deeper problems than mere anxiety about a missing phone. Grudgingly, her domineering husband Heung-ju agrees to turn back to search the famous Buddhist temple they have just visited, Cheongpyeongsa. But with night falling and the temple now closed, they are obliged to find a room and stay an extra night.  

As alcohol loosens their tongues, these glum tourists share some uncomfortable home truths about their stale marriage, which began with a coy date at this very same location 30 years before. "I'm bored out of my mind," Eun-ju tells her drunken spouse with a pained smile. "Honesty, you’re not fun." This gently devastating rupture sends both husband and wife out into the wintry night on separate soul-searching missions. 

While Heung-ju deadens his sorrows in booze and flirts clumsily with an old flame, Eun-ju ends up sharing her woes with a sweet young couple (Lee Sang-hee and Woo Jihyeon), whose budding romance shares some uncanny parallels with her own courtship decades before. Indeed, Jang teasingly hints that the young lovers may even be some kind of ghostly echo, perhaps even figments of Eun-ju's unsettled mind.

Winter's Night is a slow, melancholy, brooding meditation on middle-aged disappointment. And yet Jang still manages to make it intriguing, absorbing and full of sublimely poetic touches. The female characters are particularly well written and played, especially Seo's subtle but magnetic performance as Eun-ju, which radiates wry mirth and sullen defiance even under decades-deep layers of quiet desperation. Every wounded smile and tearful shrug feels real. 

Jang's minimalist style has a formal purity, capturing each scene in a single shot, mostly on a static camera, aside from a handful of slow pans and the two mobile taxi sequences that bookend the main story. There is clear crossover between his intimate, spare, dialogue-driven approach and fellow Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo — indeed, Seo has acted for Hong, too. But there are also faint echoes here of Swedish director Ruben Ostlund's 2014 prizewinner Force Majeure, another depiction of marital breakdown triggered by cellphone panic in a snowy holiday resort.

The film's visual grammar is poised and precise, but understated enough to serve the story above all else. Jang and cinematographer Yang Jeonghoon favor still, empty, symmetrical composition, marking scene divisions with painted historical tableaux. The nocturnal setting, with its frozen waterfalls and neon-lit snowscapes, lends an alluringly alien beauty to this Midwinter Night's Dream. 

Venue: Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn
Production company: Bomnae Films
Cast: Seo Young-hwa, Yang Heung-ju, Lee Sang-hee, Woo Jihyeon
Director, screenwriter, editor: Jang Woo-Jin
Cinematographer: Yang Jeonghoon
Producer: Kim Daehwan
Sales company: M Line Distribution
98 minutes