K-movie Review: Bleak Night

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

It is rare that a movie which I have anticipated and hoped to be good actually proves to be good. Usually, or at least in my experience, great expectations lead to poor results. However, Bleak Night proved to be one of those rare instances where I got what I asked for: a story that wasn't just sad - a story that would be moving. And in that test, Bleak Night passed with flying colours.

 Plot summary: 

After his estranged son Ki Tae's (Lee Je Hoon) tragic death, Ki Tae's father (Jo Sung Ha), filled with guilt and regret, sets to find out what happened to his son. He finds a picture of Ki Tae and his friends Dong Yoon (Seo Jun Young) and Baek Hee (Park Jung Min) and decides to contact the boys in the hopes of hearing some answers. Reluctantly, Baek Hee agrees to meet but there is something he isn't telling. What happened between the friends? Will the father finally learn the cause for his son's death? 

Disclaimer: I apologize in advance if this review might retell the movie in a some parts, but because I really wanted to discuss certain aspects more thoroughly I had to explain the scenes beforehand. Also, because of that, this turned out to be a pretty spoilery review so...

SPOILER ALERT! YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

 What I liked: 

Lee Je Hoon as Ki Tae. Lee Je Hoon does a wonderful acting job in the movie, adding a whole new dimension to Ki Tae. Layer by layer, he opens up Ki Tae's character for us to see both his menacing and violent self, but also his caring and fun-loving side. 
Ki Tae never comes across as just a bully and it’s largely thanks to how Je Hoon captures every little nuance of Ki Tae’s persona. This is especially important because the dialogue often doesn't explain things fully, most of the time you have to study the characters’ facial expressions and body language to understand what they are feeling. Thankfully, Lee Je Hoon is very expressive even in scenes with no dialogue. But it is in the two of my favourite moments of this movie - Ki Tae's apology scenes which I'm going to discuss more below - where he shines the most. In those scenes, the camera focuses longer on Ki Tae's face, allowing us to see Lee Je Hoon's capability to go through a spectrum of subtle emotions in just a few minutes. And it's quite amazing.


Ki Tae and his friendship with Doon Yoon and Baek Hee. It is a challenging task to understand Ki Tae's character, because every new layer of his personality simultaneously explains things more and confuses us further. His relationship with his friends is also a very complicated one. 
In the very first scene we see him as the iljin of his school, ruthlessly beating up another kid while other students, including his two best friends Baek Hee and Doon Yoon, watch in uncomfortable silence. Our first impression of Ki Tae is entirely negative, which is an interesting way to set up the character who we know tragically commits suicide later on. We are prepared to hate him. 
However, in contrast, the story takes us back to happier times where Ki Tae's playing around with Baek Hee and Doon Yoon, nothing hinting on Ki Tae's tendency to bullying or violence. In fact, he seems very attached to his friends, even somewhat reliant on their friendship. 
One piece at a time, we put together a back story for Ki Tae. We learn that he's estranged from his father and his mother is dead, which is why he prefers to hang around with his friends rather than stay at home alone. This explains quite a lot already as kids with a lot of free time are never up to good. But in one conversation, Ki Tae admits that he knows that his power over others will end after high school. He won't be jjang anymore, but at least he still got his friends, right?


Unfortunately, things will turn out differently. When Ki Tae offers friendly love advice to shy Baek Hee, unexpectedly, Baek Hee's crush starts to like Ki Tae instead. Ki Tae doesn't hesitate even for a moment when he turns her down, sticking by his friend. Baek Hee, on the other hand, is not willing to move past the incident as quickly. This causes Ki Tae to feel betrayed, even though what Baek Hee probably needs is just some time. At first, Ki Tae forces Baek Hee to hang out with him (by taking his backbag), not realizing that friendship doesn't work like that. When it doesn't work he feels abandoned and starts to physically punish Baek Hee, destroying what was left of their friendship. By the time Ki Tae sincerely tries to apologize, Baek Hee has decided to transfer and lashes out on Ki Tae, telling him that he doesn’t need the apology because they were never friends in the first place. And Ki Tae's eyes begin to well up upon the heartbreaking realization that he can't fix things between them anymore.
A similar course of events follows with Doon Yoon, who stands up to Ki Tae for causing Baek Hee to leave. Trying to win back him by manipulation, Ki Tae pretends to "warn" Doon Yoon about his girlfriend's bad reputation, making it seem like he's protecting him. But when the girlfriend attempts suicide because of the rumours, it becomes clear that once again Ki Tae has gone too far. 
In a desperate attempt to mend their relationship Ki Tae tries to apologize but, just like Baek Hee, Doon Yoon says he never considered him as a friend. We know that it isn't really true, but seeing how how deeply these words cut Ki tae it becomes apparent that he is insecure enough to believe it's true. You see every bit of pain in his eyes as he realizes that he has lost his friend forever. The moment is even more devastating because we now know that this is what drives him to commit suicide soon after. 


The baseball motif. I liked how the scene where the boys play baseball together by the railroad tracks sort of repeats throughout the movie, with one certain difference. At first, we see the three friends play baseball together, with everyone getting along and goofing around. When Baek Hee no longer hangs out with them, it’s only Ki Tae and Doon Yoon together by the railroad, but they’re no longer playing baseball because Baek Hee's not there. Then after Doon Yoon has also started avoiding him, Ki Tae sits there alone, staring at the baseball. And finally, at the very end of the movie, Doon Yoon comes back to the train tracks, with that same baseball they used to play with in his hands. He recalls when Ki Tae told him about how he got the ball and imagines him there with him. When imaginary Ki Tae jokingly asks "Who is the best?" Doon Yoon quietly says to himself "You are. Friend."
The baseball itself is quite meaningful as it is passed around between the boys. A symbol of their friendship, if you will. The ball belongs to Ki Tae, who holds it very dear. In one scene the boys look for the ball by the tracks, Doon Yoon and Baek Hee wondering why Ki Tae's so attached to it. But the ball actually carries a new meaning each time. When Baek Hee has transferred to another school, Ki Tae comes to visit him for the last time and gives him the ball as an apology. After Ki Tae's death Baek Hee hands the ball over to Doon Yoon when trying to get him to have a talk with Ki Tae's father. In this scene the ball is a reminder of their friendship. In the last scene, the ball is back with Doon Yoon where he asks the imaginary Ki Tae to give it to him as a birthday present. Now the ball is simply a memory of Ki Tae, the friend who died.



The ending. I really enjoyed the way film wrapped up, despite the tragedy of Ki Tae's death. It is an interesting choice to start the movie as a mystery of sorts, where a father tries to find out the reason for his son's death but in the end still remains in the dark. We as the viewers learn the full story, but Ki Tae's father isn't told that his son was a bully whose manipulations cost him his friends, which ultimately was the reason for his suicide. Although it's sad that he never got to know his son, it is understandable that neither Doon Yoon nor Baek Hee had the heart to reveal Ki Tae's true character to his mourning father. 
Meanwhile, Baek Hee and Doon Yoon are left with regret. Although, breaking off their friendship was a justified action from their point of view, it is clear that they regret the words that were said. It's especially hard for Doon Yoon, who ended things with Ki Tae, saying that "Nothing would've gone wrong if you weren't here from the start" which is horrible, knowing that Ki Tae killed himself afterwards. While Doon Yoon doesn't get to to say sorry for what he said, we get do some peace of mind through the scenes where he half-imagines half-reminisces conversations with Ki Tae. 
Still, the movie ends on a rather sad note, reminding us that it's impossible to change the past. A bully is unable to undo the scars of his victims, a friend is unable to take back words said in anger, and a father is unable to get to know his son who has already passed away.

The atmosphere. Bleak Night is just as bleak as the title says. The colours are dull and depressing, meanwhile the setting is desolate and, quite honestly, claustrophobic with big grey apartment blocks standing side by side like big gray boxes with windows (a good way to use the surroundings, by the way). Everything seems hopeless. However, the move makes a point using atmosphere. We are supposed to feel hopeless to really see the tragedy of the lost friendship and to understand Ki Tae's consequent suicide. It works, and perhaps it works even too effectively.



 What I didn't like: 

The slow pace. Actually, this was not a very big problem for me as I never expected the movie to be very eventful or packed with action. In fact, the slower story progression enables us to learn more about the characters which, in case of this particular movie, is a rather a good thing than a bad thing. But I still thought I should mention it.

 Overall conclusion: 

Bleak Night is a great movie. It is dark but moving, not only making you mourn for Ki Tae's death, but more importantly, mourn the loss of the precious friendship between the boys. The only flaw is the slow-pace, which for some can be an issue, but I was quickly pulled in by the emotionally powerful story of a broken friendship. This is definitely not a light watch, in fact, the heavy subject matter and the downright depressing atmosphere can leave you a bit empty for days, but it’s well worth it. You will be touched.



 Verdict: 

Plot - I kinda wish it had been sped up a little bit, but once I got into it I didn’t mind the slow-pace that much because the characters kept me intrigued. For clarity's sake, however: it's not a story about something happening, it's the story after that something has already happened. 

Acting – Lee Je Hoon is absolutely amazing in the role. He plays a difficult character, but does it superbly and fills the character with little moments of utter heartbreak. Jo Sung Ha is otherwise good, but his role is too small to really stand out. Seo Jun Young and Park Jung Min both deliver solid performances, former perhaps a bit better in my opinion.

Soundtrack -The soundtrack is unfortunately unremarkable compared to the rest of the movie. Though at the same time I understand that to emphasize the emotions, silence, rather than music, works much better for this movie.

Cinematography and editing – The title doesn't lie, everything from the colours to the surroundings is very bleak and depressing. It isn’t beautiful, but it isn’t supposed to be.

 Final rating: 9.5       Enjoyment: 10 



 Memorable quotes: 

Ki Tae: "You think I like bluffing in front of people? It's just nobody ever gave shit about me."
Doon Yoon: "Who cares what people think?"
Ki Tae: "I know. How about you?"
Doon Yoon: "I don't care."
Ki Tae: "Go you."
Doon Yoon: "Don't hang on to something that will be gone someday."
Ki Tae: "Even if I lose everything, I'd still have you.
Doon Yoon: "Stupid."
Ki Tae: "You truly understand me."
Doon Yoon: "Want standing ovation?"
Ki Tae: "You understood me even in junior high. Even if others don't give a shit, as long as I have you, I will be ok."



---
Ki Tae: "Why're you doing this?"
Baek Hee: "How about you? Think I'm your bitch? Are they all your bitches? You never thought of me as a friend. Till when did you think I'd suck up to you? Know how I survived your bullshit? That great pride of yours. Why shouldn't I have mine? Those fuckers are the same. They don't give shit about you. Life's easier having you around. Cause people think you're some shit. You have no friends. I've never thought of you as a friend."
---
Ki Tae: "You can't do this to me. Not you too. For me, you are, I mean..."
Doon Yoon: "Mean what? Mean what? What am I to you? Stop being delusional. Just stop. I'm not mad at you. So listen carefully. Do you know how much I laugh inside when you say I can only understand you? Don't think I was ever your friend. It's disgusting."
Ki Tae: "Are you for real?"
Doon Yoon: "I think you'd know. You were the one who always said that you hate those pretentious bitches. You know what's funny? You're the most pretentious one. Why don't you live up to your words? That's why everyone thinks you're a loser. They leave you because you disgust them. You're disgusting."
Ki Tae: "Is that really me?"
Doon Yoon: "Yeah."
Ki Tae: "Where did I go wrong? From where did I go wrong?"
Doon Yoon: "Nothing would've gone wrong. If you weren't here from the start."
---
Ki Tae's father: "I am curious why...why one best friend moved suddenly, and the other didn't come to the funeral. I feel there's something about Ki-tae that everyone's hiding. Am I asking too much?"
---
Ki Tae: "Everyone's going wild for me! Yo, can you see it? Look! Who's the best? Who's the best? Dong-yoon! Who is the best? Stop ignoring me. Who's the best?"
Doon Yoon: "You are. Friend."

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