When I searched for the articles about South Korean film “Night Flight” not long after watching it, I came across an article about its press conference attended by the director Lee Song-hee-il and his actors. According to the director, the foreign audiences were shocked by its depiction of harsh school life when it was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, and they asked him later whether teachers and students are really cruel and uncaring like that in South Korean schools.
I cannot say whether things have changed much in the South Korean education system since I managed to escape from my high school without any serious trouble 14 years ago, but I can say that “Night Flight” touched some unpleasant memories inside me like other dark, memorable South Korean high school dramas such as “Bleak Night”(2010) and “Pluto”(2012). Although I only cared about books and movies and test scores during my school years. I knew one or two things about being alone and being bullied, and the movie instantly brought out lots of sympathy from me toward its lonely adolescent characters even though they are a lot different from a 16-year-old boy of myself in many aspects.
At the beginning, we are introduced to Yong-joo(Kwak Si-yang), a bright high school kid who will be probably accepted into the Seoul University if he keeps studying hard and getting high test scores as usual(the Seoul University is No.1 university in South Korea where every bright student in South Korea wants to go, by the way). Although his home is not very affluent, he has a good mother who has raised him alone since his birth, and he also has a close friend whom he has known since his middle school years.
But he has a secret he does not dare to tell anyone except Joon-woo(Lee Ik-joon), a student in the other high school in his neighbourhood. He and Joon-woo have accepted their homosexuality, but that is something they cannot reveal to others around them. During one sadly amusing moment, they check a mobile phone application for locating any gay kids they may hang around with, but it looks like they are the only ones in their neighbourhood. At least, they managed to find their own private place, which is a closed gay bar to be demolished sooner or later(the title of the movie comes from the name of this bar).
The life at his high school is not very bad for Yong-joo as long as he keeps his sexuality in his closet, but it is virtually a hell for his close friend Gi-taek(Choi Joon-ha), a chubby boy who is a frequent victim of the cruel bullying by Seong-jin(Kim Chang-hwan), the leader of their class who has been actually associated with several bad kids in the school while maintaining his exemplary appearance in the class. After getting beaten up by Seong-jin’s gangs, Gi-taek tries to do something about it at one point, but teachers are not very sympathetic to his torment while always emphasizing the preparation for the upcoming college entrance test, and it is not very easy to fight against a bully who has not only goons ready to follow his order but also rich, influential parents who will cover anything for their spoiled kid. Even before they enter the society, everything is already set for these kids to determine who should be at the top or the middle or the bottom in their small world, and we cannot help but feel angry to see that nobody does anything about this problem.
One of those bad kids associated with Seong-jin is Gi-woong(Lee Jae-joon), and he has already been destined to be at the bottom of the society. His father has been missing due to his union trouble, so he has to work to earn money like his mother whenever his school time is over. The teachers in the school do not have much expectation on him because of his bad behaviors, and Gi-woong does not give a damn about his future either while the feeling of suffocation grows inside him everyday.
It is slowly revealed to us that there was a time when he was close to Yong-joo and Gi-taek. Through a number of flashback scenes, we see that Gi-woong was a lot less tough during their middle school years, and we also come to realize that Yong-joo has harbored a certain feelings toward Gi-woong. Although they have been estranged from each other for a while, Yong-joo finds that he is still carrying a torch for Gi-woong, and his feeling grows more especially when they happen to get involved with each other through their accidental conflict on Yong-joo’s bicycle.
Yong-joo eventually decides to come out to Gi-woong, and, though he is repulsed by that at first, Gi-woong finds himself being gradually closer to his old friend. Although he does not seem to be sexually attracted to Yong-joo, he shows his gentle side as spending more time with Yong-joo, and Young-joo is certainly happy to be with him even though he is not so certain about what will happen next in their fragile relationship.
As their story slowly rolls on the fine line between friendship and sexual feeling, the director/screenplay writer Lee Song-hee-il, who has made several notable gay drama films including “White Night”(2012), accentuates the melancholic mood surrounding his characters through several poetic scenes which occasionally occur in the mundane realistic background of the film. The scenes at the abandoned gay bar, which is placed at the rooftop of some building, are usually shown with the soft lights of sunset, and there is a lovely scene when Yong-joo and Joon-woo discover to their delight that their private place is a more colorful one than they thought.
The actors in the movie are believable even though they look a little too old as adolescent characters. Newcomer actors Kwak Si-yang and Lee Jae-hoon ably carry the movie in their sensitive performances, and Choi Joon-ha, Kim Chang-hwan, and Lee Ik-joon are also convincing as the other high schooler characters in the film. As Yong-joo’s caring mother hoping to find her Mr. Right someday, Park Mi-hyeon brings a little humor into the story, and she has a good scene when her character tells something important to her son as an unwed mother who knows well about being ostracized by others.
Although it does have a couple of explicit scenes probably responsible for its 18-rating in South Korea, I do not see any problem in allowing teenager audiences to watch the film, and I strongly believe that, like another acclaimed South Korean film “Han Gong-ju”(2013), this powerful movie can make them have some understanding and empathy toward others while actively thinking about several social matters in their world. It is really hard out there for these two kids in the movie, and that harsh fact of their reality does not change much even after the expected melodramatic climax packed with betrayal, anger, and redemption, but, as watching its touching finale, I was reminded again of why we should not lose the ability to understand and comfort others. Things may not change easily, but that is usually the best we can do at least as decent human beings.