Bleak Night 파수꾼 (2010) – S. Korea
First time writer/ producer/ director Yoon Sung-hyun, cast, and crew execute Bleak Night in an extraordinarily artful manner, with shallow focus, hypnotic over-the-shoulder camera operation, and subtly complex sound design, but its subject for story, a high schooler’s suicide and the father looking for answers doesn’t leave as large an impact as all the aforementioned technical ingredients. It’s a slow burn definitely, and it can be forgettable for some when much praise went around in 2010 during its initial release. Despite my critiquing little flaws of the pacing and delivery, of some missed opportunities, I think, and jarring bits that later can reward, what should be noticed is Yoon Sung-hyun’s age and status as a student of the Korean Academy of Film Arts during the film’s production. For what this picture is, bumps and all, the final product is inspiring and refreshing drama; genuinely forward moving.
The film revolves around the lives of three adolescent boys, Ki-tae, Dong-yoon, and Becky, during their final years of high school. They are at once friends, playing baseball together, going out on triple dates. And conflict arises. Pressures at school get the best of each, in different ways. They each change, and distance between the three is harshly manifested.
When Ki-tae kills himself–not a spoiler–, his father, after the funeral, asks the two others Dong-yoon and Becky, if they could help him find some peace with his late son’s passing by way of information. What happened so recently? Neither boy is immediately helpful, and it’s obvious they are shirking truth.
You’re given the task to follow like that of the father and be a character, to investigate with observation and careful listening; to document as events unfold. And that’s engaging, you not being spoon fed plot and bits; so as to live in the moments onscreen organically.
Answer then, while piecing together images. What is it that really happened to Ki-tae before he died, and why do the two boys take effort to conceal truths from the father? Those questions become deliberately quickened conflicts for you and the editing to trod through, building to steep summits of tension and turmoil, what with a heavy guilt pulling everyone down, and, with a sincere haunting low-hum score weaved in between onscreen performances and a loose editing style, answers become difficult to come to grips with, soon messy and very cinematic.
Whilst the film’s scenes, their settings, and the characters’ surroundings add to the overwhelming dread and sense of hostile presence with the boys and the schoolyard posses, you’ll likely find some optimism from this work, but it’s surface proves to be grudging, unflinching in its harshness. You are scared for the boys, their actions honest for only a moment and then another, completely changed, them not seeing large scale consequences, connecting ties, before the incident and then after. One can sympathize. But who is wrong? They are only thinking of themselves because they do not know yet how to cooperate under hard times, and hard times there are.
The drama of the film comes by Sung-hyun’s neat manipulation with themes on anxiety and egoism, groupie affection and lonesomeness. His having written the screenplay himself is talent proving, and I must add I’m quite envious of his skill set to direct a motion picture with such reserve and maturity, technical capacity with artful passion. It truly is a marvel, especially considering the budget and locations used. Bleak Night grants a dark and murky form of heart out of a guilty kind of a regret, shared and not. The two boys, Becky and Dong-yoon reflect on older times with Ki-tae during the aftermath and questioning, that back and forth editing. And, though they do not answer clearly, you are granted much to observe on and chew upon, feeling sorry for each one differently, not sure what was directly at fault until the end.
It’s successful in that you are pushing forward with weighted angst, answering questions in real time by way of seeing and understanding slowly, like that of the characters, but some flaws are to be found too. It’s never perfect. One notices its attempting audience loyalty by way of attempting some cleverness in the film’s editing; its smothering you with a non-linear approach for editing, minimalist form over function, can be much for some audience members.
While it does hold its ground, not being too clever, actually quite convenient, I feel some characterization space is lost due to its moving backward and then forward to reveal events, when a more efficient result would’ve been resourced with traditional narrative structuring, first focusing on the past and slowly then linearly, forward moving in a literal sense. Could not Sung-hyun have spent more time with the camera observing a one place in time, move in one direction, and end in one spot first in his writing before approaching full fledged complexity of timeline manipulation? Am I nit picking? Probably, I am.
It’s an enjoyable work, but, for some, the deliberate slow burn cadence can be tiring; possibly burdensome. It sometimes feels as though it’s trying to hard to set the example for the hot and ready film study (*for which it did) to be praised and toted around, rather than receive accolades on narrative alone, of being a point-and-shoot traditional kind of a visual story. Oh well. Sung-hyun is destined for great filmic products likely if he keeps to it.
Ultimately, the film presents an ensemble of interesting characters with very real personas and objectives. Their living among others with very similar, raw ordeals, under the stress of school work and popular acceptance, relationships and self-actualization, they’re welcomed to be onscreen while you are watching, and I highly recommend you take a look at them and the story, the technical brilliance and all, as the events do unfold in interesting ways.
Because some have commented that you will cry toward its end if you watch it alone, maybe grab a box of your favorite facial tissues brand to pat away possible salt streams running down the length of your face. I don’t actually find that necessary, but — you know — preparation is key.
I was scribbling notes on film-making techniques I wanted to go off and emulate during my first viewing its story, and that’s why I don’t rated it higher. I was more so wrapped up in actually studying it rather than enjoy the initial encounter with the plot and its wrappings. I cannot help to be a critic of story, but its mesmerizing, dizzying camera movements did that for me. You’ll like it more, I can almost guarantee. It’s perhaps very timely too. Let me know what you think.