Originally intended as part of a short film trilogy, Korea’s first openly gay director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) White Night (백야) evolved during the course of filming to become a short feature. Since its debut at the 2012 Jeonju International Film Festival, White Night has enjoyed a successful festival run resulting in a European premiere at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival and featuring at the 2013 BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, respectively.
The film examines the single night in return of air steward Won-gyu, two years after a self-imposed exile following a homophobic assault. The altercation is based on a true event which occurred in Jongno, Seoul in 2011, and director Leesong explores the deep-rooted psychological trauma that continues to resonate long after the attack. Employing European aesthetics to do so, the director has crafted an attractive and interesting exploration, but one that ultimately fails to shake off its short story origins into something more.
Returning to Seoul after an absence of two years, gay air steward Won-gyu (원규, Won Tae-hee (원태희) is distant and aloof. Rather than contact family, Won-gyu arranges to meet another man via the internet for a sexual encounter. Yet when courier Tae-jun (태준, Lee E-gyeong (이이경) arrives, Won-gyu’s barriers and distance prove too much to bear. For some inexplicable reason however Tae-jun can’t leave Won-gyu alone. As the night wears on, Won-gyu’s history as a victim of violence becomes clear and the twosome resolve to stay together until Won-gyu leaves the following morning.
Director Leesong Hee-il is clearly influenced by European cinema, with such aesthetic sensibilities shining through in each frame. While the film compromises of mostly street scenes, White Night is very attractive throughout and features some lovely cinematography that gives each area different characteristics. Such artistry is also present within the protagonists themselves. Won-gyu, for instance, doesn’t give away any information about himself directly, yet through his mannerisms it is clear he contains hidden depths. As the character continually plays with items in his hands, chews gum, and stares longing when smoking, it is left to the audience to wonder about the internal conflict that drives him and the reason for his stoicism. These clues are intelligently and subtly referenced throughout the film, and it is acutely refreshing to witness psychological trauma presented in such a manner without characters screaming about their strife. While intriguing at first, the lack of information does however become frustrating as Won-gyu refuses to provide any, often only smoking and staring into the distance. As such director Leesong flirts dangerously close with the pretentiousness so often associated with European art-house fare, yet thankfully the inclusion of Tae-jun propels the narrative forward so that such instances don’t linger for too long.
Tae-jun is an extremely compelling and likable young gay man, one who evokes the iconic spirit of James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause with his orange jacket and motorcycle. He is the antithesis of Won-gyu, someone who is open and articulate and as such quickly becomes the heart of White Night. His desires for freedom and to be noticed are conveyed well through his apparel, and he additionally provides the more comedic moments in the brief and fleeting relationship with Won-gyu. Tae-jun is also unfailingly kind. Yet his kindness highlights one of the more odd features of the narrative, as despite the rather abusive treatment he suffers due to Won-gyu for some reason Tae-jun refuses to leave. The motivations for such behaviour are curiously absent, stretching believability as to why a character with Tae-jun’s integrity would endure such annoyances.
White Night really comes into its own when referencing the homophobic assault that transpired in 2011. The revelation of Won-gyu’s involvement is understated and sincere, as the impetus underpinning the character’s frosty demeanor are revealed. The discussions involving the ramifications of the event and the subsequent media coverage are poignant, exploring not only homophobia within society and the homestead but also the psychological anguish that such violence creates. Tying the narrative into a true-life situation is a masterstroke in emphasizing the difficulties of being a gay man in contemporary Korea, and director Leesong does well in presenting such a timely issue.
However following such an integral and compelling plot point, the film struggles to find direction and to move beyond its short film sensibilities. Won-gyu’s psychology is not delved into further aside from a rather brief encounter with the theme of revenge, and the protagonist continues to display a coldness that halts the development of the relationship between him and Tae-jun. Additionally the film feels rather padded out with more unnecessary street scenes – possibly in order to make it a feature length presentation – which quickly become rather dull. Furthermore the love sequence between the couple seems somewhat forced, while the framing and character actions are far from romantic. White Night is therefore quite a mixed offering from director Leesong, one that perhaps would have worked better in its original short form rather than the elongated, and rather underdeveloped, feature length version that exists.
White Night is an interesting and attractive queer film from prominent gay director Leesong Hee-il. The European aesthetics are combined well with the psychological trauma exhibited by the main character, itself derived from a real homophobic assault in 2011. Yet the film never fully goes beyond its short story origins, featuring repetitive scenes in conjunction with some underdeveloped narrative moments. Despite this White Night is a thought-provoking film about anguish, and one of the better queer features in recent memory.