Review: White Night


[Korean Movie Night NY is back with Park Shin-Woo’s film White Night. If you live in New York City, you can see this film for free at the Tribeca Cinemas tomorrow night (Feb 28th) at 7 PM. More information can be found here. This review contains minor spoilers.]

White Night is a really difficult film to write about. I know that, because I have written and deleted eight different introductory paragraphs. It’s a very well done film that deals with some very intense subject matters, which means it won’t be for everybody. If it is for you, there’s certainly a lot to like here. If it isn’t, I think you’ll want to stay far, far away.

How will you know which category you’re in? I guess it really depends on how much you like children.

White Night (Baekyahaeng)
Director: Park Shin-Woo
Rating: NR
Country: South Korea

For better or worse, the death of a child is far more significant than that of an adult. Once a child dies in a film, the film cannot simply forget it and move along. That death, and the inherent emotional resonance that comes with it, needs to be earned. Death is just kind of a thing in movies, especially ones about crime. Adults drop like flies at the hands of the protagonist and that’s fine. But kids are different. There are a number of reasons for that, but the only thing that matters is that it’s true. The death of a child cannot be taken lightly.

And White Night treats it, on the whole, with a fair amount of respect. The story is not based on the death of a child (it’s based on something far worse), but the incident is not a peripheral thing thrown into the film to get a rise from the audience. In that sense, White Night justifies it. 

White Night 2009 Son Ye-Jin

But I’m still conflicted about the way the film presents the event that the story is based on. It’s a truly horrible thing, and director Park Shin-Woo and co. are forced to walk a very fine line in order to keep White Night from simply being exploitative. Much more than the death of a child, what White Night deals with is inherently horrifying to pretty much everybody. It’s something that will affect anyone with any kind of conscience.

The scene is, like the rest of the movie, very well executed. The acting is excellent, the visuals are distressing, and the tension is palpable. It appears as some kind of hallucinatory flashback, where a character who was not present at the time of the incident sees into the past. What he sees was partially explained to a different character a few scenes prior, but hearing about and witnessing horrific events are two very different things. 

I think that White Night did it justice. I certainly want to believe that it did, but there was just something that seemed off about the whole thing. Maybe it was because I wasn’t as horrified as I feel I should have been, or maybe it’s why I wasn’t as horrified as I should have been, but I don’t know. I felt disturbingly dispassionate. As I think about it, it’s kind of the way I felt about much of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. I do think that Salò treated its disturbing subject matters with respect, though, so perhaps I’m simply thinking about what White Night did in the wrong way.

White Night 2009 South Korea directed by Park Shin-Woo-620

But enough about that. As much as those things are an integral part of what White Night is, they are not everything. Let’s talk about the movie itself.

Frankly, I feel kind of bad for White Night. I hope that it eventually gets some kind of wide release, but, if it does, it’s going to have to contend with a lot of unfair comparisons to Darren Aranofsky’s fantastic Black Swan (and not just because of the black vs. white thing).  It starts right from the beginning. The opening scene, which is bizarre and intense, takes place while Tchaikovsky’s main theme from Swan Lake plays. I heard the song and went back to Black Swan’s opening dream, which most certainly affected the way I felt about the scene.

The thing is, although it’s just now getting its first US showing, White Night was released in South Korea more than a full year before Black Swan was released here. Any similarities are completely coincidental (or come from Aranofsky’s end), but there are certainly some notable ones, especially if you already go in with clouded judgment. It’s a shame, because White Night can only be hurt by the comparisons, and it is more than capable of standing on its own.

White Night Ko Soo

Perhaps the most consistently notable things about White Night are its use of editing and focus. Many films work hard to make editing as innocuous as possible. It’s not there to intrude, simply to keep the story going at a consistent pace. White Night is different, often using the editing to tell the story. Perhaps the most vivid example is a cut from a character falling down a dumbwaiter shaft to a mannequin lying on the floor. That style is found throughout the film. Not every cut functions that way, not even the majority of them do, but enough do that the editing serves a more noticeably significant role in White Night’s visual style than in most films. It’s sort of jarring at times, but even so I appreciated what it did to add to the film’s tone.

The use of focus is just as significant. Clearly the cinematographer is a fan of shallow depth of field (who isn’t?), because so many of the shots have at least one focus change at some point. Wider shots are less likely to be constantly changing their focal subject, but I would say that the majority of closer shots have some kind of noticeable use of focus, whether that involves an actual changing of the focus or simply something that had an interesting focus to begin with.

White Night 2009 Lee Min-Jung

In the end, though, pretty much everything about White Night is really well done, and, assuming you are not too easily disturbed, you should see it. The story is great, the acting is great (especially from the children), the visuals are great, the audio is great, etc. etc. I really don’t have a lot of complaints. Its biggest setback is something that I’ve already spent much too much time talking about, and it may not affect most people in the way it affected me. I hope not, because it left a bad taste in my mouth.

But even if that bad taste tempered my enjoyment of White Night, it certainly didn’t ruin the film for me, which I think says quite a bit about the quality of the filmmaking. Unfortunately, director Park Shin-Woo has not done anything before or since, but I hope he will, because I’d love to see what else he’s capable of. In the meantime, though, White Night is all I’ve got.

But that’s really not such a bad thing.