White Night – Film Review

Name – White Night (백야)
Year – 2012
Director – Leesong Hee-il (이송희일)
Actors – Won Tae-hee, Lee I-kyeong

As part of the BFI Lesbian and Gay Film Festival earlier this year, we got the chance to watch Leesong Hee-il’s latest releases from 2012. The three films, White Night, Suddenly, Last Summer and Going South (2012) were originally meant to be a trilogy of short films, but White Night got extended to a full length feature film and was the first Leesong film to be shown at the LGBT Film Festival. All three films feature a similar concept where you follow two Korean gay men who embark on an emotional journey of self-discovery for a prolonged period of time. In White Night we follow flight attendant Won-gyu during his first night in South Korea after a 2 year self-imposed exile. The film opens with Won-gyu meeting his ex-boyfriend under a bridge; a tense reunion with the scars of the past relationship obviously still raw. Won-gyu is a man of very little words but through their interactions we learn that something had caused him to start his own exile and his one night back in South Korea may have other motives.

As the night goes on, we find that Won-gyu has made arrangements to meet an anonymous man he met online for what we assume is a booty call. But as the extremely silent and mysterious Won-gyu leads chatty hot date Tae-joon up a mountain to an isolated public toilet over looking the city, the booty call fails as Tae-joon is not a easy man, he requires wooing first. But for some reason, even after their falling out and a dramatic zooming away on his motorcycle, Tae-joon finds it hard to leave Won-gyu’s side. As the night goes on we learn why Won-gyu avoided returning to South Korea for two years and we watch as Tae-joon helps Won-gyu come to terms with his traumatic past.

I hear the news of the assault and it was really surprising even to me. I’ve been an activist for gay rights, and I thought I’d seen everything, but even for me it was very shocking that it happened in 2011, when I thought that Korean society had become much better. It wasn’t what I expected. These kinds of incidents are like what happened in the late ’60s and ’70s in western and European society, but it happened here, now, and it was really alarming
Leesong Hee-il, Source: Hanguk Yeonghwa

When Leesong was writing the script, he heard about a homophobic assault in Jongno, Seoul, in 2011 and took inspiration from this event for White Night. We watch Won-gyu and Tae-joon share a drink and things take a dramatic change as Won-gyu suddenly confronts someone who we later find out was involved in the incident that lead to his self-imposed exile. After a wild chase ensues, the audience along with Tae-joon learns of the traumatic past of Won-gyu and we also get some incite into the characters. A similarity in Leesong’s trilogy is that one of the male protagonists is always a lot more easy going and accepting of their sexuality than the other. Here we find out how Tae-joon accidentally outed himself to his family and how even though his mother disapproves of his homosexuality, he still lives at home, doesn’t care and just gets on with life, whereas Won-gyu was so traumatised that he runs away and even on his one and only night back in South Korea he doesn’t consider contacting his family. This reflects the two very differing attitudes and experiences of the two characters as a homosexual in contemporary Seoul.

White Night Korean Gay film Tae joon

Tae-joon (태준)

White night is a very captivating film, everything happens after dark which allows for some amazingly beautiful shots of night time Seoul. With Leesong’s trilogy you’ll notice that the director has chosen a distinct colour palette for each film, especially in the clothing, to reflect the different attitudes of the characters. In White Night Tae-joon is dressed in a bright orange jacket; an homage to James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (source), but also to contrast his bright and optimistic attitude to Won-gyu, who is always dressed in dark colours. Won-gyu almost blends in with the night like he’s trying to hide away compared to the upfront Tae-joon. The bright orange ensures that even in the dark night he can be seen, displaying his confident attitude.

White Night Korean Gay film Won gyu

Won-gyu (원규)

Throughout the film, Won-gyu barely speaks but Leesong is very clever in using little subtle actions to reveal certain characteristics. Won-gyu is constantly chewing gum, it almost becomes a nervous tick which gives the audience a hint that maybe he’s not as confident as he seems. He doesn’t give away much information about himself but his mannerisms, such as his silence and the way he’s stares into space, gives the audience an inkling to a possible internal conflict which keeps us interested in his character. Although saying this, it does become very frustrating, especially by a certain point where most of the audience has already figured out what happened, but Won-gyu drags out this moody act just a bit too long. Luckily Tae-joon is a very fun and sincere character, he obviously has a MASSIVE crush on Won-gyu, so as the audience watches, we’re really gunning for Won-gyu to open up to Tae-joon and perhaps embark on a beautiful romance. But we must remember this is a Korean film at the end of the day…

Being inspired by true events, our film-analyst minds went into overdrive when watching White Night. We noticed that the city lights were always blurry and at a distance, and throughout the film, even when the couple meet on top the mountain and look out into the city, the view is blurred and indecipherable, making it feel like the characters are almost detached from the rest of society. Also when drinking in a makgeolli house, they sit facing outwards by the window, avoiding any sort of interaction with other people. They seem isolated from everyone with their encounters often taking place in empty streets, down back alleys and stairwells, up a mountain; almost like it’s a dirty secret. Even Won-gyu’s revenge takes place in the toilet, away from public eye. Is there a message Leesong is trying to convey about homosexuality in Korean society? Even when Won-gyu is somewhat at peace and opens up to Tae-joon, they look out into the blurry city lights, through a window from on top a mountain in a secluded public toilet. This feeling of segregation is further enhanced at the beginning as Won-gyu makes his way to his hotel, he walks along a wall where an electronic scrolling text can be seen. The text is in French and luckily we had our fabulous friend who translated; the text was about how the King would not allow certain people into the palace grounds. Won-gyu was probably just walking pass a tourist attraction and this may have just been a coincidence but this text feels very relevant to White Night and Leesong is either a genius or very, very lucky!

White Night Korean Gay film 2

Won-gyu is a very interesting character even though he barely had any dialogue throughout the whole film. Hanguk Yeonghwa highlights “it is acutely refreshing to witness psychological trauma presented in such a manner without characters screaming about their strife” (source), as audiences are used to characters who are vocal about their pain, almost attention seeking with their pleas. But here we have a very different and more realistic type of character. During an interview, Leesong reveals that the actor is actually “quite a talkative and lively character” so this stark contrast between the actor’s role and his natural persona adds depth to the conflict Won-gyu has within himself and adds to the complexity of his character. Leesong didn’t want to rely on scripts so not only did he avoid giving Won-gyu any lines, but he used little fidgety habits to further emphasise and express Won-gyu’s feelings and emotions. We also feel that this silence almost seems like the victimised homosexual community had no voice. Won-gyu had to run away whilst his attackers carried on a normal life, even when Won-gyu fights back, the ramifications for their actions are hidden from society.

Tae-joon on the other hand is very talkative and vocal with his thoughts and feelings. We often wonder why he sticks with the mean and cold Won-gyu throughout the film. But Tae-joon’s sweet nature is visible the moment he enters our screen as he adorably shuffles around and follows Won-gyu like a puppy dog. Even though he is constantly moaning at Won-gyu, you can see his feelings and admiration towards him which is what makes him stay with Won-gyu all through the night. The chemistry between the two characters is captivating, you would expect the silent and cold Won-gyu may want to push away the chatty Tae-joon, but this chemistry keeps them together and we eagerly await for Tae-joon to melt down Won-gyu’s icy exterior.

White Night Korean Gay film 3

White Night is a very beautiful film which focuses on a very serious and current situation. We understand that this film may not be everyone’s cup of tea and there is a certain assumption that gay cinema is just about sex and only relatable to the gay community but Leesong aims to make films for everyone and not just a gay audience. White Night is a very powerful film about human nature, emotion and a very serious societal issue. We love the simplicity yet effectiveness of the plot progression which entwines a bit of romance without taking away from the serious message of the film. Although there were a few moments where it felt that Leesong was focusing too much on the aesthetics and making pretty bokeh lights on screen, his efforts in building these two complex protagonists really make up for it and we definitely recommend watching White Night if you get the chance. We are really grateful to the BFI LGBT Film Festival for giving us a chance to watch Leesong’s films with English subtitles. We will have reviews of the other two parts of this trilogy soon.

Daebak Star

images from: Hancinema
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