Saturday, February 8, 2014

Berlinale 2014 Review: Subdued yet Powerful, NIGHT FLIGHT Soars

Part of MKC's coverage of the 64th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Pierce Conran

LeeSong Hee-il returns to Berlin a year after White Night (2012) with his fourth feature Night Flight. While his last film was a subdued but powerful work about lingering memories of homophobia in modern Seoul, his new feature is his most ambitious yet. Retaining queer themes, Night Flight goes beyond the scope of his past works by weaving a wider tapestry of social motifs that touch on many of the issues facing youths and minorities in contemporary Korea.

As the years pass between middle and high school, a trio of friends becomes separated over time. Yong-ju and Gi-taek remain close yet Yong-ju is a closeted homosexual and Gi-taek has fallen to the bottom of the food chain within the school’s hierarchy. Meanwhile, Gi-woong, by virtue of his prowess as a fighter, has become the leader of the school’s gang of bullies. Yong-ju also harbors feelings for Gi-woong but the distance between them makes it difficult for him to express himself.

The ‘Night Flight’ of the title is actually an abandoned gay bar in a part of town that is slowly being demolished, presumably to make way for redevelopment. High schools, though permanent institutions, are merely transient experiences for the students that pass through them. Yet, short-lived though they may be, they are also heightened microcosms of the societies that surround them. In Korea, that means that power and hierarchy are king, and minorities, particularly those deemed socially unacceptable, are swiftly singled out and maligned but, worst of all, they have nowhere to hide.

Thus ‘Night Flight’ becomes a safe haven for these birds that must hide in the shadows. Soon the encroaching enterprises will engulf it, stealing its refuge and renewing it with sleek steel and glass facades. Interconnectivity and the deluge of information make these hideaways an increasing rarity for those seeking to escape from society’s harsh judgment.

Though grand in its themes and sweeping in its scope, Night Flight remains an intimate affair. Much like White Night, LeeSong’s film takes a grounded approach to its modest subject, presenting us with his story in a manner that is realistic yet undeniably poetic. Fading light carves the blackened frames of lonely protagonists against the horizon - facing expectantly towards a brighter future, backs turned to a society that shuns them in return.

Many will likely compare this new work with Yoon Sung-hyun’s Bleak Night (2011), a gritty and powerful tale of fractured friendships also set in a high school. Yet while those comparisons are apropos, they should not detract from Night Flight’s wider canvas. LeeSong has an uncanny ability to present films that appear small and quiet, yet with each passing beat, he hints at a larger picture, peppering the screen with allusions to greater issues that lie beyond the frame.

As Young-gu and Gi-woong, newcomers Lee Jae-joon and Kwak Si-yang express the tinted memories of their pasts, the pain of their present and the uncertainty of their future through mournful eyes, tensed expressions and frustrated movements. Hesitant and confused, their characters are emblematic of all those who do not fit into the status quo, those who, consciously or not, resist its influence and live their lives on society’s fringes - on country roads away from Seoul’s uniform tower blocks, under highways maintaining the steady flow of the country’s fatigued workforce, and in the derelict, soon to be to expunged surroundings of ‘Night Flight.’

Longer than his previous works and more sprawling than its plot indicates, Night Flight succeeds because it seems effortless. With his soft brush and gentle strokes, LeeSong is one of the most sensitive filmmakers in Korea today. And now, afforded his widest canvas yet, it may be time for the world to see that he may also be one of the country’s best.

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