Welcome to the second edition of the best of Korean new wave cinema, here on sound of sight. A running series of articles that comes out every two weeks, in it we look at the best 21st century Korea has to offer on cinema screens. Whether that is big names like Park Chan Wook and Kim Jee Woon or unknown curios that deserve the coverage. Each article will cover two thematically similar films, this time its two films from 2011 in Sang-Soo Hong’s The Day he arrives, and Sung-Hyun Yoon’s, Bleak Night.
Directed by Sang-Soo Hong
Screenplay by Sang-Soo Hong
The Day He Arrives is a 2011 film by director Sang-Soo Hong about a director who now teaches in the Korean Countryside returning to Seoul for a weekend. At first Sungjoon (Jun-Sang Yu) wanders around town, phoning people and happens upon an actor he worked with, before visiting an ex-girlfriend who he had a messy break-up with has a few drinks with a group of film students.
Hong’s film is a piece driven by its themes. The themes that the director is fascinated with are the cycles of life and the repetition therein. As such the structure after the set-up is just that, a series of similar scenes in which the group drink, talk and leave the bar with many of the same events occurring, such as the bar owner being missing, re-appearing and offering the party food, bookmarked by further discussions. The next scene repeats those beats only with a slight difference, maybe there will be a new member to the party or Sungjoon may play the piano, but the scene structure repeats itself over and over from the midpoint (of the 80 minute running time).
The film suggests that people make the same mistakes over and over. Additionally it picks up on moments that may seem significant while they happening, the example which the film uses is meeting numerous people involved with film in a short space of time, that isn’t a fleeting miracle of life, it’s nothing more than a pleasant coincidence. For a film that makes love and romance one of its defining features, it’s an incredibly unromantic endeavour.
The Day He Arrives is very much part of the art cinema staple, shot in black and white with minimal camera movement and small sets, and existentialist conversations recalling American independent cinema from the 1990s & 1970s or French New Wave. The discussions and theories that come across in this lo-fi film are fascinating, if poorly shot. One of the many things that are celebrated within this epoch of Korean cinema is the bravura film making, full of imagination and vivid idealism. While the idealism may be here, the bravura film making is not. Many films use the un-cinematic convention of people talking as the main draw. Sadly, besides the grand statements about life these conversations aren’t too appealing. To observe people involved in film making at some rudimentary level, people who are either in thrall of it or disillusioned by it would create something interesting for the cineaste. While there is one fascinating argument when Sungjoon meets his first ever leading man, it’s an isolated incident within the grand scheme.
If anything should be garnished from the films this draws influence from it’s that endless conversations can be dull when there is nothing to visually stimulate. Take Linklater’s Before Sunset and Sunrise; what makes them such enduring pieces is that their cast moves from location to location, introducing new characters and new places. On the other hand, perhaps the static nature suits Hong’s film better. Most of the camera work is still, occasionally however the camera uses the zoom to horrible effect. Like editing, camerawork should only be noticed when the creators want it to be noticed, and notice it you do. You can feel like cameraman holding down the zoom button.
The ideas and theories in 2011’s The Day He Arrives marks it out as an oddity in the most unconventional sense, likewise with the improvisational toned performances. However the execution undoes most everything, reducing it to something that feels like the output from a director learning on the job and not a veteran of 16 years.
Directed by Sung-Hyun Yoon
Bleak Night sees the father of a high school student attempt to get some answers surrounding the death of his son. All he has to go on is a photo of his son with his two best friends, neither one of which came to his funeral. Even though Ji-Tae (Lee Je-Hoon’s) father is looking for answers he barely features in the film, most of the film alternates between the aftermath of Ji-Tae’s death and the events that led up to it. Told out of order, but rather than being some flashy trick by a young director it is entirely necessary in making Yoon Sung-Hyun’s film an affecting look into the lives of three Korean teenagers.
Much of the Korean cinema that makes the jump from East to West paints the country in fantastical, exaggerated hues; Bleak Night shows a realistic and unflattering vision of Korea. The most fitting point of comparison would be social realism thanks to the themes of childhood abandonment, the socially ostracised, teenage gangs & bullying twinned with a colour palette of greys in an area of Seoul rampant with desolate suburban geography.
All of which is offset by the fleeting moments where the three friends, Ji-Tae, Dong-Yoon (Seo Jun-Young) and Baek (Park Jung-Min) spend lazy afternoons having fun, chasing girls, acting their age. It’s in these moments where the film finds its dramatic heft, contrasting this with the moments where the friends’ childhood is destroyed by Ji-tae’s new imposing persona. That contrast proves to be heart-breaking by the films end, even if Ji-tae’s father doesn’t find out the truth; the film still packs an emotional punch. When a film is as unrelenting as this, a simple smile is anything but.
It’s not just the story telling that champions Yoon Sung-Hyun’s film, which was audaciously planned as a graduation film for the Korean Academy of Film Arts, the performances play they part too. Bleak Night has three wonderful leads that illuminate the conservative values of Korea, with bowed heads and contained mannerisms, a side of the country that is rarely seen. Playing off this is the anger that these boys feel, whether it is a petty argument or a full blooded fight. Much of the interaction comes when Ji-Tae transformation from a caring friend with an aggressive sense of humour into what is ostensibly a gang leader. Those moments fuelled by anger ring true in a way that recalls nostalgia for all the wrong reasons, that palpable sense of an unhinged character is found in all walks of life after all teenagers are the same the world over. As both a writer and a director of actors, Yoon shows a fascinating understanding for what it means to be this age.
Although both are firmly within the arthouse, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to describe this week’s other film as mannered and pompous, In what proves to be a stylistic 180 from Bleak Night – a stunning feat of naturalism. It is slow paced and the dialogue is minimal, but this is an atmosphere piece about disillusioned youth, the passing from teenager to adult, leaving behind past ties. All sold thanks to the intimacy of the handheld camera work, shadowing that sombre antithesis to the extravagant giants of the Korean New Wave. Chances are titles like this will be amidst the Joon H0-Bong’s of the world. Regardless of the number of people this film will reach, Bleak Night is a deeply personal work from its young director, shot with a unique vision on what it means for Korean cinema to be Korean.
In two weeks, when the next article is up, the films covered will be centred on gangland thrillers, with 2012’s Nameless Gangster starring the inimitable Choi-Min Sik and Ha-Yu’s A Dirty Carnival.
– Robert Simpson