For the KOFFIA festival I was given two films to review. Both films deal with young people. The other film, Silenced, dealt with the way adults can abuse the rights of the very young, in ways horrific and saddening. Here, in Bleak Night, it is the young people, mostly, whose own dealings with each other propel the tragic events at the film’s core.
Opening in what appears to be an abandoned railway (a place the film spends much time in, so the metaphor is pretty clear), a gang of boys walk along, chatting and smoking, until one trips another and then beats the living hell out of the victim, while the others stand by seemingly not caring.
Shot and dealt with quickly, the film moves to a classroom of kids, where one sits head in hands at a distance from the rest, who are playing boisterously and loudly in the corner. The leader of this gang of unruly kids wanders over to the boy sitting apart, acting annoyed and intimidating. At a glance it would appear that maybe this is the dynamic represented in the opening beating, but the dynamic is anything but clear. The leader is Ki-tae (Lee Je-hoon) and the other boy is the deliberately effeminately-named ‘Becky’ (Park Jeong-min). And the film soon reveals them as long-term friends, a friendship based around care, sure, but also around manipulation and bullying.
Given that the film is about a teenager’s suicide, it would, at this stage, be the norm to think that it is the slight and harried Becky whose life ends tragically. But no. When the film reveals the victim’s father, it is clear that the boy who took his life is the alpha male Ki-tae and this, and I hesitate to use the word, ‘twist’ gives the film an extraordinary heft and depth.
The film is both flawed by and aided by its narrative, which drifts without obvious marking, between the past and the present, and neither appear to be easily dealt with in a linear fashion. One past scene might play earlier in the film before a past scene that took place earlier still. It requires the viewer’s attention, but the payoff is worth it, as the film unravels in the same way the lives of the boys unravel. It’s a great ploy: the film doesn’t point at any one event or trigger as being the catalyst for Ki-tae’s suicide. Things that seem inconsequential in one scene are given a broader context when we see not just what happened after but what happened before. Here is a film that appears driven by the father’s quest to find the ‘truth’ as to why his son took his life, but which ultimately shows there is no one reason or one person or one event, no one easy truth.
Lee Je-hoon who plays Ki-tae is, well, quite, quite brilliant. By turns snarly, charming, sad, conflicted, lonely and in charge, his performance never wavers in presenting any of these, often all at once. It’s both a ‘performance’ and completely natural, surely the best compliment any actor can be given. Not that he is not ably supported by the two actors who make up the central trio with him. Park Jeong-min as Becky is terrific, but there’s something very interesting too about the performance of Seo Jun-Yeong, the kind of heroic protective figure who is also deeply flawed and haunted, not quite able to do the right thing when it counts. Or at least not able to understand what the right thing might be until the moment has come and gone.
It is this sad playing out of events that happen after a suicide that often gets overdone in films dealing with this topic. Here they are quietly expressed and incredibly sad as a result. All the more poignant is the lack of assigning of blame. Sure, it’s lots of little things, but mostly it’s the broad picture, one of love and friendship that is given and received sometimes openly, sometimes with requirements, and taken away, if not easily, sometimes with consideration as to consequences.
The abandoned train yard, the worn out ball that Ki-tae cherishes, the sombre colouring, the casual and misunderstood betrayals: all these things and more bear out the anguish of youth, and its preciousness.
Sometimes so real that it is almost documentary-like, then so dreamy it is like a remembered thing, wistful and vanished. Bleak Night is a quiet, terrific film.
Bleak Night is screening at KOFFIA 2012 (late August through September) in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane — see the festival website for full details.