Suddenly, Last Summer (지난여름, 갑자기) is a wonderfully moving and understated short film, and certainly the best of director Lee Song Hee-il’s (이송희일) 2012 trilogy comprised of White Night (백야) and Going South (남쪽으로 간다). In each segment of the trilogy the theme of two men spending a prolonged period of time together in a day is explored, with Suddenly, Last Summer exploring this dynamic between thirty-something high school teacher Kyeong-hoon (경훈, Kim Yeong-jae (김영재) and student Sang-woo (상우, Han Joo-wan (한주완). Typically films that delve into such age and society-related relationships attempt to portray a morality tale of some sort, yet director Leesong eschews melodramatic cliches in order to convey a psychologically complex connection between the protagonists, emerging as a mature and thought-provoking examination on the subject.
Key to the potency of Suddenly, Last Summer is the manner in which director Leesong presents information about the relationship between Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo, and how such revelations develop their connection. Initially Sang-woo, an attractive young gay student, appears to be infatuated with the teacher, stalking him and making unfair demands. Yet as they engage in various conversations throughout the day, moments from the past are subtly referenced adding layers upon layers of complexity to their relationship, discussing and debating prior actions that may or may not have contained deeper meanings and the inferences generated from them. Director Leesong refuses to either condone or condemn the protagonists, instead opting to examine their internal struggles between desires as gay men and societal responsibilities.
Director Leesong’s films always display a keen artistic sensibility, and with Suddenly, Last Summer this most notably appears through the repetition of water imagery. In taking a river cruise in the popular Yeouido area, Kyeong-hoon and Sang-woo open themselves to the tranquil beauty of the water, ebbing and flowing against a romantic-charged soundtrack. The blue tones of the Han River also work well in conjunction with the protagonists’ shirts. The pure white that envelops Sang-woo conveys his purity and innocence, his single-minded approach to life, yet Kyeong-hoon’s blue shirt connotes an older, more mature persona. The actors wonderfully articulate such sensibilities through their performances, with Kim Yeong-jae providing a highly effective and restrained performance as the morally-conflicted teacher, palpably displaying his discontent facially. Meanwhile Han Joo-wan connotes his youthful frustrations well, flitting between moments of maturity and adolescence in expressing his desires.
Despite their differing styles, both men clearly harbour a similar emotional discord which unites them, even though society states it is inappropriate. Their confusion is wonderfully articulated through the labyrinthine landscape of the apartment buildings, with the many twists and turns articulating their own psychological dilemmas. It is this moral and psychological complexity that makes Suddenly, Last Summer such a compelling film, and a welcome entry into Korean queer cinema.
Suddenly, Last Summer is a subtle and moving exploration of the relationship between a high school teacher and student. Director Leesong Hee-il delicately inserts information throughout that continually evolves the connection between them, challenging preconceptions while never adopting a moral position, and as such is the best film in the director’s 2012 trilogy.