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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

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

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

For Sleepless Night, Jang and his tiny cast and crew lived in close quarters for the duration of the film’s short production. Eating meals and sleeping together in the director’s apartment, which served as the main location of the film, they also shared their thoughts and worries. Their marriages, as well as the minutiae of their daily lives, became a part of the filmmaking process. I can only imagine, but it must have made for a very special experience for those involved, especially given the result on screen.

The film is exceedingly relatable and highly personal. The character’s thoughts are almost never a mystery, despite frequently sparse dialogue. Much of this is down to the splendid performances of the two leads but it is also part of the fabric of the film. For me, these silences that dot the narrative are examples of ‘meaningful stillness.’ They feel important, as though a statement is being made: however nothing is forced upon us. Perhaps they merely exist, like fleeting moments that just happened to be caught on camera: but they feature no action. It could be that these lulls derive their meaning purely from the context afforded by prior scenes: yet they are not in the least bit contrived.

These moments, or this essence, gave me a very special feeling. One that is hard to describe and which is purely subjective. Moments such as a quiet bike ride through the night, accompanied by the sound of whirring spokes, purring crickets, and warm air brushing past. I dare not assume that others will feel the same as I can barely account for the feelings it awakened in me. I can just recognize it as a sensation that I’ve felt before in Korean cinema, though rarely with quite the same intensity.

As previously mentioned, part of the story focuses on the couple’s discussions about whether or not they are ready to have a child. In one particularly earnest scene, they list out the pros and cons of becoming parents. They are in large part focusing on the negatives while also being very honest about their desire to remain free for just a little longer. Not in any rush to sign away their freedom, they are not quite ready to take this step, though perhaps some things are being left unsaid. Not long after, following a small incident, they change their minds and this sudden reversal feels perfectly natural. The unadulterated joy they exhibit as they goofily dance together in their kitchen is heart-warming. Though the gentle Bach piano piece that accompanies them on the soundtrack does quietly underscore the seriousness of the decision they are taking.

In a modern Korean society, which covets the trappings of a comfortable western lifestyle, it’s easy to lose sight of what is really important. Sleepless Night’s great charm is down to the modesty of its search for joy in Seoul’s urban jungle. Life is lived in the present moment, not in anticipation of better ones that lie in wait. I frequently forget this, so a beautiful and sweet reminder such as this is welcomed with open arms. It acts as a soothing antidote to the tribulations of a busy Seoul lifestyle.

Sleepless Night is a work told in the simplest terms. Poetic, richly evocative, and sporting a pair of sublimely naturalistic performances, it is a film about normal people and ordinary circumstances, yet it is electrifying. I am not married and children are probably a long way off but I can appreciate where these characters are coming from. I like them, I understand them, I feel like one of them, and, ultimately, I want the same thing they do: to be happy.


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