'As Long As I Have You, I'll Be Okay...': Bleak Night (2010) Review
As another couple of weeks pass and my inactivity on this blog grows ever more unsettling to myself alone - not to say that I have been completely despondent, in fact I’ve been busier than even I am comfortable with; still, I had to ride the wave - it is time I raid the stacks of films that I have recently seen and contemplate the most striking of the selections at hand. Of course, what I’m writing today is hardly going to be a review. Down with discipline, I say! Failing in my attempt at criticism, for once again I pick one I enjoyed rather than something sub-par or even simply attending to each watch item and their success as a film, what makes this pick a little different is that I re-watched it immediately upon conclusion.
How interesting I hear you cry! It is indeed. The film I feel like talking about today is a little discussed gem although successful on the International festival circuits upon its release in 2010. A character study of troubled teens, it is the coming-of-age, South-Korean drama Bleak Night by Yoon Sung-hyun.
The father of a young Ki-tae (Lee Je-hoon) seeks out the two best friends of his son, following his death by suicide. The boys, Hee-jun (Park Jeong-Min) and Dong-yoon (Seo Jun-Yeong), never attended the funeral and the weeks leading up to the incident, the former transferred schools and the other dropped out. Finding photos of his son with them, he feels they can shine some light on what drove Ki-tae to take his own life. Through a series of flashbacks, the relationship is revealed to us. Ki-tae relies heavily on his friends. With an absent mother and a father who works long hours, he leads a solitary home life, turning to his friends for affirmation, love and support. Not that he is open about his feelings. Ki-taes rocky friendship with Hee-jun, spurned by jealousy over a crush that spirals out of control, bullying soon ensues tainting their relationship forever. Dong-yoon, lost in the heady thrills of first love, is at first oblivious, but upon discovering the feud tries to stop Ki-tae's relentless actions. Instead, the boys are flung further apart. Filled to the brim with the pettiness of youth, misunderstandings, the jealousy, the intensity of young friendships, the need for acceptance and worst of all the loneliness, Ki-taes’ final troubled weeks are revealed to us.
Yoons' portrait of adolescence at its most stifling. The framework surrounding the father incites the plot, but the true story unfolds in the classrooms, the evenings the boys spent together at one another’s houses or by the tracks. Despite knowing the outcome, the revelation of the stages that led to the dissolution of childhood friends is truly heartbreaking. It feels like a familiar story; one almost too close to home. But this is where Yoon truly masters his tale. He takes the experience of young people and captures the misinterpretations and errors of our teenage-hood and places them on the screen in front of us. He understands that teenagers don’t understand one another, let alone themselves. So how are they supposed to face the world?
Through a uses of hand-held shots and close-ups, wonderful cinematography executed by Byeon Bong-seon, Yoon interprets their world. Scenes of the three boys at the tracks are often caught in wide’s and close-ups of the individual’s faces. These wide’s take in the intricacies of their relationship. There is a solace at the tracks, despite deeper themes that this location can hold – that they will one day go their separate ways on a journey that will be hard for them all.
Away from here, in the classroom or with others, it feels far more restrictive. Watched by their peers, the intimacy of the youthful world blurs with the lack of privacy. Dong-yoons’ love life with his playful, kind-hearted girlfriend, reflects this intimacy and fills their world with romance and tenderness. This starkly contrasts to the parallels conflict between Ki-tae and Hee-jun – equally as intense, bleaker with every passage of time as the feud escalates into physical abuse. Ki-taes gang, a group of boys as shallow as the reason he enjoys their company, hover at the fringes of their worst conflicts. Watching and waiting, intrusive. These close-ups capture the range of confusing emotions Ki-tae experiences about the situation. Through rejection, he lashes out. Yet the boy wants nothing more than to connect to his old friend. They are inches from one another in many a scene – but one has shut the other out. These moments are unbearable but also cataclysmic.
Much of the power in this film resides in the performances by its three leads. Lee, Park and Seo carry the emotional intensity, perfectly understanding the roles they are assigned and capturing the complexities of young lives. The story asks a lot from them, and they deliver it naturally. In particular, Lee’s interpretation of Ki-tae is equally balanced with tragedy and despair. He is a complex character, unlikable at first before we begin to understand his motivations; with this in mind, the actor is able to address the childish neediness and the venom that comes with jealousy and rejection. How one man is capable of capturing these emotions; the hurt and anguish behind the stand-offishness is beyond me. Lee is simply outstanding.
Ki- tae: Who is the best?
Dong-yoon: You are. My friend.
In fact, Ki-tae’s character is fascinating in the exploration of bullies on screen. It is interesting to see the dissection of these characters, refusing to justify their actions but certainly make us pity them. He cares what others think about him. It mystifies the other two boys, but this doesn’t change how much Ki-tae cares. But so much of Ki-tae is beyond comprehension to them; possibly through distractions of their own experiences as youth. Yet for the viewer so much of his behaviour is plain to see. Deeply troubled, incredibly lonely, Ki-tae needs more. He's a bully through some fault of his own, but he doesn't see himself that way. In fact, projecting much of his own failings on others; Ki-tae is in need of friends, of structure and reliability.
A notable facet of Ki-taes identity I find equally as complex and fascinating, that ties into the understanding of his relationship with the other boys, his needy and infantile nature, is through the baseball they throw between one another at the tracks. Early on in the film, when it's almost lost, Dong-yoon and Hee-jun search the brush for it, unsure of the significance of it. It's a childlike possessiveness Ki-tae holds over the item. It can be interpreted as a represenation of his dreams such as the desire to become a batter for the professional leagues, the use he has in the friendship with the two other boys (it brings them together, and without his ball they can't play) or ultimately, it's a symbolism of their unity overall. He's never willing to give it up to them. They both almost gain ownership of it but relinquish. I suppose this displays on some deeper level, they both understood the importance of the baseball, even if they didn't know the importance. In the end, the baseball is the one thing Ki-tae can really control, and enjoy without a care in the world.
Ultimately, there is no one there to stop Ki-tae or his escalating rashness, because he feels abandoned. But feeling and knowing that he is are two different things. Ki-tae craves attention; negative or positive. What he gains from bullying Hee-jun is a desire for a reaction from the boy, worse than any anger or hate that he could impart on his own being. Worst of all, the hot-headedness of his character, the naivety of him robs the boy of any capability to hold back. When Ki-tae wants to fit in and be wanted, it is not enough for him to gather around him his cronies, because even he knows this is not enough. Furthermore, he gains equally as little by manipulating Dong-yoon. Inside his own head all the time, Ki-tae is incapable of making sound decisions, teetering closer to childishness than the adulthood he struggles to see for himself. The final days of Ki-tae, the heart-wrenching meeting between him and Dong-yoon, later alone at home, devoid of everything he cherished, are unendurable and unforgettable. Ki-tae, simply put, is one of the most devastating characters I‘ve ever seen on screen.
It was the feeling of such overwhelming pity that had me re-watching the film. As I mentioned before, it all feels too familiar. Not that my youth was filled with bullying, abuse or exile. But I was witness to it, experienced it in varying degrees that could have all too easily have become uncontrollable if I and my friends had been different people. Words that are said that carry too much weight to ever be forgotten. Words we don’t mean, or mean in that moment if only briefly, that lose all ferocity and warp into some tainted hex upon those you love once regretted.
Bleak Night is an understated piece of filmmaking, so many of the events are microscopic in comparison to the significant life events of the average adult. It’s understanding that the micro is utterly distressing to these young people, and with these small things that define them at such a delicate age being tampered with or questioned, can tip the scales into absolute tragedy. It reminds me of what it was like to feel misunderstood when I was younger. The extremity of emotion, that is still dormant inside me, which remains dormant with the mild reasoning I have gained with age. Upon my re-watch, I wanted to understand the boys more.
'You never thought of me as a friend.'
Yoon has created an experience. The lives of Ki-tae, Hee-jun and Dong-yoon, in all their sincerity, closeness and cruelty are sad to see. Where loneliness is captured, there is also regret. For me, it is a shame that such a powerful film has gone amiss by so many. It’s not happy viewing. When has anything I recommended in my reviews fit that basic criteria? But it’s a character study of immense depth and heart. This a crafted by a filmmaker entirely in tune with characters and his subject matter. It steers clear of melodrama, reveling in its realistic nature. And in the last scene, when nothing can be taken back, and we see the unrealistic delusions of a lost youth, you wish there was some way that things could have changed. In the end, it was all a cry for love.
Bleak Night is available to buy here