Hee-il Leesong directs films about tumultuous relationships between pairs of men that swing from romantic love to contempt and violence. He is one of the best directors of films about same sex relationships working today. His films may be aimed at his local Korean audience, but his storytelling and technical skills can easily be appreciated outside of that country. He is probably best known for No Regret (2006), which was the first gay film released widely in Korea. That film centered on an orphan and an wealthy man swept up in a tempest of obsession, disdain, romance, revenge and finally love. If you asked me what a hero was in a Leesong movie, it would be a man who refuses to be heartbroken without first putting up a fight. White Night and the two companion short films, Going South and Suddenly Last Summer, follow up on that idea through the parings of an expatriate flight attendant and a messenger, a private and his former sergeant and a teacher and pupil, respectively.
The three films started out their lives as a planned trilogy of short films that was to be called Two Days and One Night. Leesong obtained funding to expand White Night into a feature. The three are thematically linked, and while each is complete in itself, I will review them as a group. Each piece presents a same-sex pairing dealing with a departure or planned exit of one member. In White Night, Won-gyu (Won Tae-hee) is a flight attendant returning to Seoul after a two-years of “self imposed” exile. In Suddenly last Summer, a teacher (Yeong-jae Kim) is trying to transfer to a new school. For Going South, the departed is Jun-young (Sin-hwan Jeon), who is now out of the army and wants to get on with civilian life. The purpose of the movies is to uncover the true feelings these three have about their experiences. These men are put under a magnifying glass as they run through excuse after excuse to justify their escapes.
While each of these films have second male, these are pairings not couples. Leesong is not filming romantic stories about couples getting together, and unlike romance movies, we aren’t necessarily supposed to like the pairing or want them to be together. The stories unfold more like thrillers or mysteries than romances. Major events have taken place before the opening of the films and as the couples meet and argue, the full story of their pasts is revealed. Until the full story comes out, however, viewers have to guess what motivates the characters. The second male in each pairing is trying to find out some sort of truth like a detective would, and at least in the two short films, are trying to coerce a confession. That truth they are seeking is whether or not they mean something to the other one. At stake is total heartbreak from honest answers, but until we get to those honest answers, characters give a lot of dishonest and unacceptable ones.
In No Regret, Leesong did not attempt to establish a great deal of sympathy for the character who attempts to escape. In fact, he was very brutal to him. In that movie, the character Jae-min is repeatedly beaten throughout the film. Even though he expresses a great deal of self-loathing, his partner, Su-min, isn’t expected to pretend that there is a tragedy behind that suffering. The tragedy is that Su-min is left without an explanation of their status, and the last act of that film is about Su-min’s refusal to part quietly merely because Jae-min needs him to go away. The three films from 2012 cover that same issue. Characters are not allowed to leave simply because it is easier for them to do so.
Going South resembles that last act of No Regret. It is straight up melodrama from start to finish in which Gi-tae (Jae-heung Kim) kidnaps Jun-young to find out if the affair they had in the army meant anything. Gi-tae obviously has a few boundary issues, but I don’t think we should interpret him as some kind of overly obsessed gay man. He isn’t trying to trap Jun-young back into a relationship with him. Instead, he wants answers and is actually no different from the characters in the other films who want them except by degree. Gi-tae is also he one who takes the most risks, since he has something to lose by deserting the army to find out the truth. Gi-Tae knows that the relationship is over, but he isn’t going to allow anyone to leave him with some vague social explanation. It matters a great deal to him that their time together was love and not some little fling that men in the Army might have when they get lonely. His methods may be impure, but Gi-tae’s heartbreak is real and it will only get worse the more Jun-young dismisses him. It is probably the most emotionally painful of the three films.
Leesong tempers his approach in Suddenly Last Summer, which is the most dramatically intense of the three. One can feel a great deal of sympathy for Kyeong-hoon as he deals with affections from (or towards) a student, Sang-woo (Juwan Han), that he has every reason not to want. Did he harbor any sexual feelings for the student earlier? Sang-woo certainly seems to think so. In this film, Leesong really pushes the limits of what society is willing to accept in same-sex relationships or any relationships. Sang-woo may be 18 and barely under the age of consent in Korea, which is 19, but the student-teacher origins of the relationship means that sexual contact between the two is off limits even if Sang-woo aged a year. The unease I felt as the narrative unfolded remained constant throughout as I wondered whether or when the two leads would cross that line.
Suddenly Last Summer is the short that I thought would make the best feature, but one that would be the least likely to be green lit by anyone because of illegality of topic it covers. However, Sang-woo represents something new in Korea. He’s been “out” to his mother since he was in middle school. Kyeong-hoon has a very different life experience. Whether Sang-woo’s confidence is naive would be interesting to check on in a few years, as well as Kyeong-hoon’s responses to those currents. I don’t know if the relationship in the film could be expanded without the result being seen as an attempt to make a case in favor of student-teacher relationships in high school. As potentially romantic pairings go, I’d rather they remain friends, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be interested in finding out what developed out of their “date.”
Saving the feature for last, White Night is the most layered of the films. The male pair have arranged a hook-up online while Won-gyu has a layover in Seoul. He has not returned to Seoul for two years and will leave the next morning. As far as he is concerned, he will never return. Tae-jun is a courier who will follow Won-gyu around during those six hours he has before departure. Won-gyu has been adrift for two years and currently resides wherever he has a layover. On one level, the movie is about an semi-anonymous hook-up that has many false starts but may lead to something more. But the film is actually about Won-gyu’s reasons for leaving and why he has returned only to leave again. Tae-jun (Lee I-kyeong) isn’t in the picture to fall in love with. He’s there to witness something, and as a messenger, he’s there as a representative of the city itself. The relationship in question is between Won-gyu and his home city, the feelings he has that make him still feel connected to it, and what he must do to break them. Since Won-gyu is very quiet, it’s Tae-jun who has to pepper him with questions and make a case for not severing all ties. After awhile, it no longer seems to matter if they have sex or not. What matters is where Won-gyu’s wanderings are leading.
It was apparent in No Regret that Leesong isn’t afraid to shoot in the dark and White Night demonstrates that he is great at making the city of the nighttime a setting for the film. Leesong is shooting a pair of contrasting characters at night- Tae-jun in his bright orange vest openly wandering the streets with Won-gyu, who in his dark airline uniform looks like he’d prefer to be in the shadows. There is a scene in a well-lit cafe where even under the lights, Won-gyu’s face remains mostly in the shadows.
There is a reason for Wan-gyu’s hesitancy in the shadows that has to due with the consequences of exposure gay men face in Korea, a theme that has been run through all three films. The ever-present street cameras of Seoul mirror the cameras and cell phones in the two shorts that are used to capture unwanted images that shift conditions in each film. It was unwanted exposure that caused Wan-gyu to finally leave. He is remains angry about how and why he left. The question is whether he is lucky to get out, or just a coward. Many expatriates have the same conflict. Only he knows what he feels at the beginning of the movie and to give you an answer would be spoiling the movie.
I don’t want to spoil a movie that you should probably seek out, even if it is a difficult to find. Were these typical romances, I wouldn’t hesitate to let you know if anyone lives happily ever after. But since they are romantic mysteries, it’s best that you find out for yourself how they end.
**** of five.
IMDB: White Night
Trailer: Going South
Trailer: Suddenly Last Summer