Monday, September 5, 2011

Volatile Day, Bleak Night

The free screenings of Korean films brought to us by The Korean Cultural Service NY rarely seen in the United States continues with a second series of Hidden Gems of Korean Cinema. They have acclaim at festivals or in Korea, but do not make it here. The first film in this series is the harrowing drama, Bleak Night, released in March of this year. It is being screened Tuesday, September 6, at Tribeca Cinemas. The movie starts at 7 pm and seats are available on a first come first served basis. It is the first of several films that you will probably not want to miss.

There have been notable Korean films with troubled teenagers somewhere in their focus. Bleak Night is the first film to come to my attention that solely features high school-aged protagonists amongst a nearly all teenaged cast. This debut feature length film from the young and incredibly talented director, Sung-Hyun Yoon, gives audiences a frank look at the way juveniles interact with one another and perceive their world, while at the same time unfolding a tale that, as the title suggests, consists of some poignant tragic events. The movie gives me the sense of a uniquely Korean or Asian phenomenon, one that is very contemporary. Classroom scenes, for instance, evoke the same sort of unsettling anarchic franticness as depicted in the opening moments of Japan’s drama about damaged adolescents, Confessions. Some viewers, however, may find themselves relating to universal themes of the difficulties of approaching adulthood.

As the movie progresses, the focus settles on three male friends: Gi Tae, Yoong Dong-Yun, and Hee-Joon, who is more commonly referred to by the nickname Becky. Through their interactions, each one’s personality becomes more clearly defined. At the two extremes are Gi Tae’s impulsiveness as the class’ alpha male and oftentimes instigator, and the shy but quiet confidence of Becky. Added to the interactions between these friends are shifts in time to a few months later, which reveal that Gi Tae has died under unclear circumstances, as the boy’s father seeks out an explanation from friends and classmates.

This may be a film about kids for adults, but the audience is certainly not being pandered to. There is something very genuine and unglamorous to the way the characters behave. Comparisons would even be in order to 1995’s Kids, if that were a better and less sensationalistic movie. A very believable system is depicted with its own complex politics and hierarchy, yet it is dictated by the hotheaded temperamental nature of adolescence. The film’s realistic portrayal of today’s youth especially comes through in the dialogue, as well. Characters answer each other’s questions with their own questions or other vague responses. There is a maddening indirectness about it at all that is maintained consistently throughout.

Indeed there is a lot of suffering in the film. I prefer to use this term instead of ‘angst,’ which tends to be overused and suggests a kind of moaning over trivial things. The weight of the issues these characters take on at too young an age is truly heavy. At the core of these problems appears to be the students' inability to express one’s self. Confrontations resemble tribe-like mating rituals with characters verbally butting heads and puffing out chests, dancing around the issues at hand instead of dealing with them directly. When characters attempt to open up and express their feelings, they often do so with suggestions of violence, either spoken or physical in the form of leaning forward imposingly, jostling, slapping. So filled with insecurities and desperate to be independent are these kids, they are unwilling to let their guards down for a moment. This goes on until tensions reach their boiling point and verbal assaults are unleashed, done with so much pent up rage, it is like a sudden violent release of pressure that has been building and building with nowhere to go. The minor skirmishes become violent assaults. Misunderstandings lead to tragic self-inflicted wounds. This all leads to the severed ties that the viewer is left to make sense of.

There are serious implications to the film, despite its subtle nature. Who is guiding this generation? Or perhaps, a better question is: Who isn’t? Teachers are all but left out of the picture and other adults are pointedly lacking in any prominent roles. When Gi-tae’s father is seeking out answers, it is already after the fact. He seems slight and diminished during these infrequent sequences and is ultimately ineffective in his search. Gi-Tae, in an exchange with his friends that takes place before his demise, describes how he goes home to cook his own dinner every night, lucky to occasionally see his father for a moment. His mother is simply gone.

The director’s decision to sequence events out of order could come across as strange or even haphazard. As the end of the film approaches, events become more difficult to place within the timeline. The tension that had been built up so steadily before seems to dissipate and the final moment of confrontation between victim’s father and friend, where one might expect a powerful resolution, proves inconclusive. Any misgivings I had about the mastery of this film were erased after I had the privilege of giving the film a second viewing. The interspersion of past and present events is in fact very meaningfully constructed. Words and gestures hearken back to earlier moments, creating the sense of something possibly even bigger and harder to cope with than the events that were clearly shown, lingering under the surface. As for showing events before and after, but not including the actual tragedy at the film’s center, here the director drives home how muddled our understanding of those around us truly can be. If we don't seek out clearer communication, we can only speculate on the lives of those around us.

A possible part of the film’s appeal on the festival circuit and indie success in its native Korea is how emotion is expressed effectively without the use of elaborate set pieces or visual effects. Even background music is used sparingly, although the few moments of music used during the story and over the credits are made up of haunting electronic-tinged melodies. They leapt out at me and left me yearning to discover their source. It’s a minor touch, but one that further shows Yoon is a director of enormous potential to look out for and Bleak Night is a film well worth seeing.

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