South Korea’s rapid development over the past 20 years has been nothing short of an economic miracle but, though there’s no denying how far it’s come, not every element of society has progressed at the same breakneck pace. Various elements, particularly as they relate to social change, have stubbornly lagged behind. One such facet is the acceptance of homosexuality. As gay marriage is slowly becoming a part of daily life in various countries in the western world, gay rights are progressing haltingly in Korea. Given the nation’s advances in other areas, this, along with other social problems, seems a little incongruous when compared with the modern image projected through the nation’s media.
Through the prism of a highly developed film industry such as Korea’s, this divide seems that much more vivid. LeeSong Hee-il, Korea’s first openly gay filmmaker, has been busily working away on short films for quite some time but earlier this year he finally unveiled his sophomore feature White Night at the Jeonju International Film Festival, coming six years after his very well-received debut No Regrets.
Throughout his film, LeeSong performs a careful balancing act behind the lens. White Night features two very attractive and fashionable leads, some luminous photography and an evocative mise-en-scene. Yet, as gorgeous as the film is to behold, it is far from ostentatious. It is quiet and contemplative, the character’s emotions as well as the film’s difficult themes silently hang in midair, just like the drifting snowflakes that make an appearance near the narrative’s end. During a few choice moments, LeeSong does opt to use some stylistic touches. The film’s langorous cinematography and ambient soundtrack beckon us to join in the characters’ shared journey. Won-gyu and Tae-joon’s story already has us hooked: LeeSong just nudges us a little further towards catharsis.
Watching White Night reminded me a little of poetic realism, a loosely categorized film movement which occurred in France during the 1930s through to the end of the second World War. Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo and Marcel Carné, among others, crafted a number of beautiful films focusing on marginalized members of society. While in their films the characters tended to be lower-class, LeeSong’s characters, as a result of their sexual orientation, are also marginalized. And just like in those legendary cineastes’ past masterpieces, such as Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1937) and Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945), LeeSong employs heightened aesthetics to add weight and emotional impact to certain social issues. Dashes of color and pathetic fallacy complement his restrained mise-en-scene. Though the film does allow for a few stylistic touches, it never forsakes its realism.
White Night comes from a real place as it was based on a homophobic group assault that occurred outside a gay bar in Seoul. The film’s underlying themes seep through the narrative and draw us in. The stylistic features that adorn the story wouldn’t count for much if they were left to stand by themselves. They merely punctuate the film’s dark but timely message. Homophobia is a reality in Korea and the pain it creates cuts deep and lingers long.
LeeSong’s film, as an example of queer cinema, is sadly destined to have a hard time gaining exposure outside of the festival circuit. A moving and lyrical work that finds beauty in unexpected places, such as when Won-gyu grabs Tae-joon’s crotch outside a public restroom, White Night deserves a larger audience than it is likely to find.
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