South Korean movie “Bleak Night” evokes the memories of my high school years. Although I was a lot more comfortable at my science high school than the high school students depicted in the film, some boys I knew in the high school were not different from them. They beat me and threatened me because I was a little different from others due to my eccentricity. When I later went to the university/graduate school, Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, along with some of them, I seldom or never talked with them unless it was necessary. It is more than 10 years ago at present, but, with cold indifference, I care little about where they are now. I don’t like to go to the class reunion even if others ask me to come.
While touching such bitter memories inside me, the movie also, above all, made me to ask myself a certain retrospective question: “Then, was I nice to them, who were probably as young and sensitive as I was?” Revealing the story behind three main characters step by step, the film presents to us the complicated relationship between them. Like many teenagers, they are smart but immature. They are also very clumsy in connecting with each other. And they can be really cruel to each other. As a result, an irreversible tragedy happened, which affects all of them.
The tragedy at the center of the story, the suicide of one main character, is never shown to us. Instead, after the opening sequence introducing main characters and other students, we meet the father of that dead student. Devastated and depressed by his only son’s suicide, he visits his son’s high school and meets the teachers. And then he meets one of the students who hanged around with his son for contacting with his son’s two close friends. As a widower and a father who was too busy to take care of his son due to his business, he wants to know what happened before the suicide in his quiet sadness.
His storyline is intercut with the flashback sequences for his son and others’ storyline in the past. In one scene, we see one student bullied by the other student, so we begin to wonder; was that student bullied his son? Did his son commit suicide due to such abuses like that from his colleagues? Will his father succeed in digging the truth behind the tragedy from the his friends? Then, what is he going to do once he knows about that?
No, the movie does not allow its story flow into such a simple direction. Soon, we see that the bullied student, Hee-joon(Park Jeong-min) is alive well and ready for the university entrance exam as a senior student. He is approached by his deceased friend’s father and has a little chat with him. While he is courteous, Hee-joon does not tell much about his friend. He says he does know little about what happened, for, according to him, he transferred to the other school two weeks before the incident. He suggests to his friend’s father that he meet the other friend, Dong-yoon(Seo Joon-yeong), who did not show up at the funeral.
But Hee-joon knows more than what he tells to the father of his dead friend, Gi-tae(Lee Je-hoon), and so does Dong-yoon. Through Hee-jon’s and Dong-yoon’s memories unfolded on the screen, we come to learn more about their relationship with Gi-tae. At first, they look like good friends. They usually spend their time together at an abandoned train station. In the brightest part in the movie, while going out with the girls, they have a really good time at the Chinatown.
But their friendship is not entirely positive. As shown earlier, Gi-tea is sort of a bully(he has his own gangs at the school). Along with his gangs, he frequently harasses Hee-joon for no apparent reason, and Dong-yoon is not pleased about his friend’s behavior. Dong-yoon later angrily asks Gi-tae, “Why did you do that?”, but Gi-tae cannot give him a clear answer. Well, have you ever met a high school bully with a good reason for his vicious behaviors?
The relationship between them is more complex than we thought. As a matter of fact, behind his bravado, Gi-tae is a lonely, sensitive boy who does not want to reveal his barren apartment to his friends. His behaviors to his friends are not always unpleasant, and he really needs them. The problem is, he does not communicate with his friends well, and neither do they. When the bond between them no longer covers the cracks between them, the destructive cycle commences, where everybody is a victim as well as a perpetrator in the gray area. For instance, Hee-joon may be the most introvert type among them, but he can be really, really cruel with cold-blooded psychological violence more penetrating than physical one. Gi-tae destroys the Dong-yoon’s private relationship out of spite, and then Dong-yoon throws a truly painful blow to his friend as the revenge.
Nobody is clean in their situations, about which they do not wholly understand. Everyone ends up with guilt and remorse. Because they do not understand even about themselves, they cannot get the answer for how they ruined their relationship . In one scene, one of them agonizingly asks to himself in front of his friend, “From where did it go wrong?” He only gets a cold, savage reply: “Nothing would have gone wrong if you weren’t here.”
The boys can be more vulnerable than girls. They can be easily hurt, and they can be easily angry to others. They are not wise, and they do foolish things, and they have not learned that others can be hurt as much as them. In addition, out of pettiness and anger, they cannot accept the apology even if it sincerely comes from the heart. Only after getting wiser(and older), they finally begin to grasp what they did to others, and ultimately to themselves. Alas, the water is spilt, and it is too late for them now.
This is a very impressive debut from the director/writer Moon Sung-hyeon. Throughout the story, he diligently maintains the vague, bleak atmosphere represented by the bland forest of the concrete apartment buildings. He firmly focuses on the world of his teenager characters; the adults including Gi-tae’s father always meander at the fringe of their problems, though they really want to know what happened. The dialogues are coarse and realistic, and there are several powerful conversation scenes crackling with intensity and savageness beneath the mundane setting.
The sense of gloomy suffocation never leaves from the screen, and Moon does not even allow it to be diminished even at the finale, which could have been ventilated by a easy catharsis. That is the right choice; the point of movie is not the ventilation with an answer – it is the suffocation with no solution or redemption. In spite of its dry attitude, the movie cares about the characters, and, though I think it is mere self-absolution or self-reconciliation, it allows some small moment for consolation and forgiveness at the finale.
The main actors, including Cho Seong-ha, who plays Gi-tae’s father, are all good with their nuanced performances. Although their age has already passed the adolescence, the actors playing the teenagers in the film are rarely awkward as the average high school students in South Korea. As far as I know, the teenagers are always same in any place and anytime, and “Bleak Night” will probably make you ask whether you were as generous to others at high school as you think – even if you were not a bully at all. At least, most of us get a lot wiser when we step into the adulthood. When I went to the university, the first thing surprised me was that nobody bullied me anymore. If they were angry, they had a good reason. And I became far happier to be a quirky nerd than before.