Premiering to high praise at the 2014 Berlinale, director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) insightful and thought-provoking drama Night Flight (야간비행) continues to build upon themes explored in his previous work. Homosexuality in contemporary Korea and the resultant alienation are joined by explorations of the country’s notoriously harsh education system as well as social injustice, making the coming-of-age film arguably the director’s most fully formed work to date. With Night Flight, director Lee Song is rapidly cementing his position as Korea’s most prominent and influential queer filmmaker.
Like most teenagers in Korea, high school students and best friends Yong-ju (Kwak Si-yang (곽시양) and Gi-taek (Choi Jun-ha (최준하) struggle with an overwhelming amount of study and the pressure to attend a top university. Yet the duo’s lives are further complicated as Gi-taek is relentlessly bullied and beaten by the school’s ‘elite’ while Yong-ju, raised by his single-parent mother, is gay and unable to express his sexuality for fear of repercussions. Yong-ju has long harbored a crush on violent head-bully and low-level gangster Gi-woong (Lee Jae-joon (이재준) since middle school, who also attempts to cope with an extremely troubled life. When Yong-ju decides to make a pass at Go-woong, events are then set in motion that forces them all into a powerful confrontation.
Director Lee Song Hee-il’s films are always absorbing explorations of the alienation gay men experience within contemporary Korea, and Night Flight certainly doesn’t disappoint. Within the film director Lee Song has focused on an area he has previous only briefly touched upon in his short Suddenly, Last Summer – the fraught experiences of gay teenagers. Night Flight is made up of a collection of real life stories the director has acquired over a number of years from the media and word of mouth, and it’s to his credit that they are collated into a convincing, compelling whole. Yet what sets Night Flight apart from director Lee Song’s prior films is that while homosexuality is a central theme it is not the sole focus of the story. A great number of social issues that Korean teenagers experience, including the enormous pressures of the education system, single-parent families, the class divide, and social injustice all feature within the narrative and are insightfully explored throughout. By featuring issues found in other acclaimed teenage indie dramas such as Pluto and Bleak Night, director Lee Song naturalises homosexuality as another facet of identity that youths struggle with as opposed to a constant sense of ‘otherness’, which is a welcome change indeed.
Night Flight is also yet another showcase for director Lee Song’s incredible vision for landscapes and composition. The cinematography is quite striking throughout the film, with the decrepit and poverty stricken environments portrayed with a great sense of foreboding, of a society crumbling under its own archaic issues. The fences and bars that appear throughout the district, so often wonderfully foregrounded, imply the prison within which these long-suffering teens occupy and are unable to escape.
Yet the film is not all grim landscapes as director Lee Song allows his characters occasional reprieves in the form of glorious sunsets, particularly atop former gay hotspot bar ‘Night Flight.’ This private arena, situated at the top of a dilapidated building, not only provides a great metaphorical resonance of escapism from the confines of a rigid society but also allows the troubled teens freedom of expression, with the conversations containing penetrating insight into the issues confronting them.
Night Flight is also an interesting variation for director Lee Song as not all of the principal characters are gay. Central protagonist Yong-ju is the only distinct homosexual voice with the film, while his friend Gi-taek exposes the bullying within Korean culture and ambiguous love interest Gi-woong personifies social injustice. All the cast give competent performances in their roles, although their rather obvious older-than-high school ages tends to be a distraction. As the narrative caters for a variety of perceptions and experiences that effect Korean teenagers Night Flight eloquently fits within the canon of provocative films about Korean youth. While the story is a little over-ambitious in attempting to contain so many social issues, Night Flight is well constructed and many of the disparate problems that feature are seen through to their respective conclusions.
Night Flight is an insightful and provocative teenage drama by Korea’s most notable queer filmmaker, director Lee Song Hee-il. In exploring homosexual themes of alienation in conjunction with an array of other youth and social issues such as education and the class system, director Lee Song has crafted a powerful coming of age story of identity and the desire for escape. Night Flight is a welcome addition to not only queer but also youth film, and is arguably the director’s most fully formed film to date.