Photo courtesy of VIFF
(South Korea, 2012)
Set during winter in Jogno, South Korea, White Night follows the cat-and-mouse love affair of flight attendant Kang Wongyu (Won Taehee) and motorbike courier Lee Taejun (Lee Ligyeong). Director LeeSong Heeil fits a substantial plot in 75 minutes, chronicling Kang's well-planned one night layover in Korea en route to Germany—including meeting an old friend, going on a blind date, and of course plotting revenge.
As the film begins, Kang Wongyu meets with a friend who walks with a mysterious limp. They sit at a café, a clear tension that hangs in the air. There is something that is deeply troubling Kang, something he ran away from in the past but has come back to Korea to finish. The audience is left with many unanswered questions as Kang leaves to return to his hotel room. As he sits on the bed only with the backdrop of the TV noise, music starts to play, and we can't help but feel some despair for this man we really know nothing about.
After the opening sequence, Kang meets Lee Taejun outside a bank for their blind date. They walk for a while—Lee's profile online says he likes walking. Kang tries to force Lee to have sex with him in a public washroom; Lee refuses and leaves, clearly upset. For much of the film, Kang's irregular mood swings cause Lee to up and leave, but after a few moments of consideration, he always comes back and follows Kang. Like Lee, the audience feels obliged to tag along, intrigued by Kang's moody and unpredictable character. However frustrating at his unexplainable actions, Lee and the viewer nevertheless wants to understand why he is the way he is.
This cat-and-mouse-chase ensues while we learn more about Kang's past: he is seeking revenge for the gay bashing he and his limping friend received years ago. These layers of Kang's character unravel as the film plays on, suitable since the film takes place in winter and the characters are all wearing many layers. Despite being initially repulsed by Kang's violent temper, I think Kang slowly begins to redeem himself as the film goes on. Lee follows along as the unlikely lover Kang finds himself attracted to.
The real highlight of this film is LeeSong's focus and emphasis on lighting and cinematography: he pays special attention and detail to the contrasts of light and dark. These gentle nuances add a delicacy to the whole film. Throughout, I found myself in awe of the beauty of Korea, its nighttime skyline and its quiet streets. All this works to vividly contrast with the disturbing violence and anger Kang seems to expound. Though serious and dark, Kang and Lee manage to share some comedic moments ("At least I don't touch-up my photos") that lighten up the film.
LeeSong uses the cold to create a multi-layered character in both Kang and Lee. The characters often ask "Are you cold?"—in a way, this film is Kang's journey to find some hint of warmth and resolution on a cold winter's night. I especially found the use of cigarettes particularly interesting. All the characters in the film smoke (one might even comment that Lee chain smokes), and the white smoke juxtaposed with the dark night seems to help relieve the stress and tension that continually builds. It is only in the end when it finally does snow after the numerous remarks of "Will it snow?", that all feels resolved.
LeeSong, described by the VIFF guide as a "pioneering gay filmmaker," deals with the issues of homosexuality, violence and love with such subtlety; it is hard not to appreciate how much the film says despite literally not saying much at all.
The film had its international premiere at VIFF 2012 on September 27 and is screening again on October 3, 12 pm at the Empire Granville 5.
Annie is studying English at UBC and enjoys reading, writing, blogging and watching movies in her spare time. You can follow her musings on Twitter @missanniechung.