In 2010, writer and director Yoon Sung-hyun caught the attention of both critics and international film festival audiences alike with his debut film Bleak Night, an impressive character study made on a micro budget as a graduation film from the Korean Academy of Film Arts. The budgetary limitations are clearly evident, the film is shot on hand-held high-definition video with limited locations, a derelict railway station is centre stage for much of the films key scenes. To his credit, Sung-hyun makes a virtue of these constraints with the video aesthetic lending the film a gritty naturalistic feel which serves to compliment the steely starkness of the atmospheric and haunting exteriors.
However, it’s the taut and intelligent storytelling of Bleak Night which really grabs attention. At a structural level the film plays like a complex and convoluted mystery, with a father investigating the circumstances around the death of his son. Sung-hyun demonstrates a sophisticated grasp of narrative with events unfolding in a fractured chronology, skipping effortlessly between time and space to reveal key plot points. Yet what marks the film as an outstanding debut is the attention Sung-hyun pays to characterisation. The fractured teenage protagonists of Bleak Night feel like real and organic individuals, the ways in which they interact and relate to each other are foregrounded by Sung-hyun, with the narrative serving only as a forum to explore the issues and tensions of teenage relations.
A sense of bitterness and resentment simmer under the surface throughout, driving the story forward – feelings which are beautifully evoked by the cast, with Lee Je-hoon in particular impressing in a nuanced performance which effortlessly captures the complexities of a troubled and wounded teenager. The melancholic and tragic nature of the film, which is essentially a tale of high school bullies and teen suicide, offers no simple resolution, no moralising denouement, and this is unquestionably the films greatest strength. The social dynamics of teenage life, the trials and tribulations of teen anxiety, are played out in a sophisticated, sensitive and thoughtful fashion by the director. A gripping drama from start to finish, Bleak Night is a remarkable debut which demonstrates an incredible sense of maturity and control by Sung-hyun.