The Korean title for Bleak Night translates more literally as Lookout. It’s a word which works better than the English title, insofar as it both connotes a major theme within the narrative, in terms of the attempts by some of the characters to look out for the others, and the need for the viewer to pay attention.
The biggest complication in this regard is the film’s complex narrative structure, one which recalls other contemporary Korean classics such as Peppermint Candy and Poetry – the latter another film which suggests a Korean high school to be one of the most dangerous places on earth.
We begins in the middle of things with a fight between some schoolboys at a railway line. Who is fighting? Why? With what consequences?
The image is deliberately unclear, unstable. The physical location, however, is one that will be returned to time and again, as the narrative thereafter begins to jump both back and forwards in time and things gradually become clearer.
The key proves to be a photograph of three friends, namely Ki-tae, Dong-Yoo and ‘Becky’ .
One of the three is now dead. His hitherto distant father (mother is dead, likewise reduced to a photographic memory) wants simply to know why. The others, one of whom transferred to another school shortly before and the other who failed to attend the funeral and has since attempted to avoid contact, know.
To say much more about what is revealed, other than that things are not always as might be expected, would probably spoil things.
The direction is especially impressive, particularly when you consider that this is a first feature by a 29-year-old and started off as a film school graduation project. Almost every shot conveys something above and beyond what is contained in the dialogue and the performances, whether through the decision to use handheld camera; the use of a two-shot or shot-reverse-shot; or the careful deployment of mirrors, such that it will reward repeat viewings by revealing new subtleties.
Recommended, as long as you are up for the challenge.