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Bleak Night
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by Jay Seaver

"An unusual teen suicide."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Hee-june (Park Jung-min) is a bookish kid, regularly picked on and even bullied by more popular "friend" Ki-tae (Lee Je-hoon), a situation that Ki-tae's friend Dong-yoon (Seo Jun-young) does little to stop. A familiar story - so why is it Ki-tae's father (Jo Sung-ha) who is visiting the other boys after his son's suicide, looking for answers?

That's the central mystery lurking at the heart of Bleak Night, although those searching for either a simple answer or even a conventional detective story may be disappointed. Writer/director Yoon Sung-hyun steps through a series of flashbacks and offers up plenty of clues, but the eureka moment seems determined to prove elusive. Not only is this not an investigation that can head to a definitive solution, but the best source of information is unavailable. For all that Yoon frequently plays switches perspectives and even investigators, we never see anything that is solely from Ki-tae's perspective. If we are to know his mind, it's going to be from what the other boys tell us.

Not that this seems particularly like a Rashomon situation with unreliable narrators; every perspective seems to add up consistently. Still, it's instructive to see what Yoon puts in and what he leaves out, as well as how he cuts between them. There's a huge jump in Dong-yoon's account, for instance, that may be him trying to downplay his guilt about another awful event, and the flashbacks to before Ki-tae's death can frequently be confusing, as the characters' behavior, especially Ki-tae's, can seem to change drastically between them. But that can be the high school experience, with people presenting different faces to different circles of friends and attempting to appear a bigger bully just to survive. Yoon gets that and presents it in all its confusing reality, not offering clear signals with cinematography or design but letting the audience recall these facts of life and sort things out themselves.

He's got a rather impressive young cast to work with, as well. Lee Je-hoon, for instance, is fascinating as Ki-tae - we see him as a jerk at times, but there's also a charisma about him. Of all the boys in the film, he is actually the smallest, physically, but he expands his personality to dominate almost every scene he's in. And yet, the scenes where he displays vulnerability and offers up explanations for why he is the way he is flat-out work; it's very easy to believe that those moments represent the "real" Ki-tae, even if that iteration is not always the dominant one. And his final scenes with Seo's Dong-yoon and Park's Hee-june are amazing bits of acting, alternating between desperation and attack.

Seo and Park are similarly impressive, although not quite so multi-faceted. Though Hee-june is our main viewpoint character, the reserve that Park Jung-min portrays at times seems to deliberately bits of his personality. He seems to be the most unchanging through the movie, with his ultimate decision being sensible but clearly an uncomfortable surrender. Seo Jun-young, although pointedly absent for part of the film, is great in this supporting role, with the changes in Dong-yoon's happy-go-lucky nature very well-done indeed. Then there's Lee Cho-hee, who plays a girlfriend that seems like a filler character but gives one quiet scene tremendous impact, and Jo Sung-ha, whose confusion and guilt as the father are simple and sincere enough to overcome the impression we get of him via Ki-tae.

I'm a bit curious to know what the current discussion on bullying and teen suicide is in South Korea. In the U.S., the "It Gets Better" project has been doing a good job of putting a special emphasis on the difficulty of being a gay teenager, and it's not difficult to view Bleak Night through that lens - Hee-june's nickname is "Becky", although that may come from the common surname "Baek", and certain characters have a conspicuous lack of girlfriends. Yoon doesn't seem to go there directly, though, and there are other factors at play that are just as valid. It's a useful but not vital question, as while I suspect that a familiarity with South Korean youth culture might bring certain bits into sharper focus, the picture is impressively universal.

Not that this is likely to play much to a youth audience very far outside of South Korea. Which is too bad - intelligent teen dramas are not the most common of films in any area, and this one offers all ages some interesting food for thought.

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originally posted: 07/20/11 16:02:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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  DVD: 22-Jan-2013



Directed by
  Sung-hyun Yoon

Written by
  Sung-hyun Yoon

  Je-hoon Lee
  Jun-young Seo
  Jun-min Park

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