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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Meaningful Stillness: The Quiet Pursuit of Happiness in Jang Kun-jae's Sleepless Night - Part I

Part III of a special MKC feature on Jang Kun-jae.

Each person’s individual journey in life is an ever-changing narrative, subject to the faintest tinkering. Our goals are equally malleable targets: a few change from year to year, others switch throughout the course of a day. Some of our dreams are dearly cherished: we hold onto them throughout our lives, yet these too are subject to change. The details within our ambitions vary over time as we accumulate new experiences: they shift to fit our evolving personalities. Though we, along with our thoughts and desires, are in perpetual flux, there could be one thing we collectively and unswervingly aspire to. We all want to be happy.

Though an outwardly simple notion, happiness is a truly complex idea that is utterly different for each and every person. Purely subjective, one person’s joy can equate to another’s misery. Yet there are things that we aspire to as a society in order to achieve some greater collective contentment. South Korea offers a very interesting example of this as it has leapt forward with its booming economy. At the risk of sounding a bit absolute, generally speaking happiness was hard to come by for many decades in Korean society as it struggled with the separation of its peninsula, a disruptive war and successive authoritarian regimes.

In the year 2012, Korea is almost unrecognizable from 20 years ago, which is roughly when the national policy of globalization came into effect. As it turns out, Koreans have become among the world’s most reliable consumers. Aggressive in their pursuit of newfound comforts and increasingly prone to trends and fads, they have embraced capitalism in a way that few could have predicted. Though perhaps this aspiration for personal gain and freedom indicates a darker trend, as a nation sweeps its collective trauma under the rug. A rather lofty notion and vast generalization I concede, and one best left for another day.

Of late, the Korean films I’ve seen, many of which have been independent and low-budget, have, by and large, made for rather bleak viewing. Hushed up sexual violence has been very prevalent but politics, torture and much else besides have also found their way into these recent narratives. For this reason, among many others, I am particularly grateful for Jang Kun-jae’s magnificent sophomore feature Sleepless Night. His new film, though not without its portrayal of injustice and hardship, is a film about happiness, or at least one loving couple’s pursuit of it in modern day Seoul.

A married couple in their mid-30s, are juggling their jobs (he is a factory worker, she a yoga instructor), schedules and obligations as they strive to find satisfaction in their lives. They go on bike rides at night, lounge around their modern Korea apartment, share a glass of beer or discuss whether they are ready to have a child throughout the course of a long, hot summer.

Originally conceived as a mid-length film, Jang’s short feature (it is only 65 minutes long) is a fiercely personal portrait of its two leads’ shared lives. Largely based on Jang’s own life, though also featuring elements of the cast’s personal experiences, Sleepless Night feels real in a way that would be impossible to fabricate: It pulsates with life. Outwardly simple and yet richly evocative, it achieves a balance of realism and poetry that touched me deeply, and continues to affect me long after I first saw a few months ago.

One thing that has frequently captivated me in Korean cinema is how, in some of its most inspired moments, it can capture calm, unassuming moments, both precious and pregnant with life. This essence, should I revisit it, could be described as ‘meaningful stillness’. Both realistic and deliberate, it is a paradox, one uniquely suited to the artistic realm. These instances are frequently framed in the most banal fashion, comprise little or no action and may not even feature any characters. They are dramatic pauses that beckon you to breath in a narrative’s preceding beats but more importantly to ruminate on their import in the context of a world we can recognize.

MKC's Jang Kun-jae Feature

A Love Story Abruptly Ended: Eighteen (회오리 바람, Hwiori Baram) 2009
Interview: Jang Kun-jae Talks Sleepless Night
Sleepless Night Production Stills
The Quiet Pursuit of Happiness in Jang Kun-jae's Sleepless Night - Part II

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