×

Tallinn Film Review: ‘Winter’s Night’

With:
Seo Young-hwa, Yang Heung-ju, Lee Sang-hee, Woo Ji-hyeon, Kim Sun-young, Kim Hak-sun, Jo Kyung-sook, Park Myeung-hoon. (Korean dialogue)

1 hour 38 minutes

There are thousands of films about love’s beginning, and a great many about love’s end. But far fewer deal with a relationship’s late-middle: the spreading, sluggish delta of coupledom when decades of familiarity, if they have not bred contempt, at least threaten irritation. “Winter’s Night,” Jang Woo-jin’s playfully melancholic third feature, after the acclaimed “A Fresh Start” and “Autumn, Autumn,” occupies this less trafficked territory with idiosyncratic grace and a surprising, gentle surrealism that lets us explore the possibility that actually those beginning-middle-and-end phases might exist simultaneously in the place where they’ve always been, and the people we once were might be wandering around there like stranded tourists.

A cleverly wrong-footing opening introduces us to Eun-ju, a wonderfully mercurial turn by Seo Young-hwa (from Hong Sang-soo’s “On the Beach at Night Alone”), and her husband Heung-ju, played by Yang Heung-ju, here reuniting with director Jang after “Autumn, Autumn.” Heung-ju chats idly to a friendly taxi driver, revealing that this was their first visit to Cheongpyeong Temple in 30 years. But a sudden road-rage incident sounds a note of threat when a van that has been aggressively tailgating their cab overtakes them, an unforced bit of foreshadowing that suggests that the things in our rearview are not necessarily past and done with. They might actually be giving chase.

Eun-ju is disproportionately dismayed to discover she’s lost her phone and Heung-ju reluctantly agrees to go back and try to find it. An unhelpful ticket-seller and an off-season ferry schedule conspire to strand the couple in the temple’s frozen environs overnight, a fate that has also befallen a young soldier and the girl (Lee Sang-hee) who is hesitantly weighing her options about becoming his girlfriend. During this long night, Eun-ju and Hyeung-ju each have separate encounters with characters who may or may not be real, and may or may not be past versions of themselves. Puffer-clad and swaddled against the cold, everyone looks a little familiar; outside the gently caustic bickering and misremembered slights between the long-married couple, the phrase that recurs most often is “Have we met before?”

So far, so very Hong Sang-soo, in this slippery, glitchy, soju-soaked approach to time and memory. But Yang’s film runs deeper under its frozen surface than Hong’s often breezy affairs — the serene wide shots of sacred, snowy landscapes against which private conversations unfold feel like Nuri Bilge Ceylan on whimsical form, while the mischievous interactions between the couple, eternally bartering affection and exasperation, and answering admiration with casual cruelty, share kinship with the sharply characterful sparring in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy.”

It’s sensuous in its winteriness, capitalizing on the air of cut-off unreality that a fresh fall of clean snow can give — the upside-down-ness of the ground being brighter than the sky and the dampening of background sound until even banal exchanges take on a dramatic, stage-whisper quality. The snowbound proscenium effect is further enhanced by DP Yang Jeong-hoon’s restrained, rigorous camerawork, composed of very few close-ups and pointedly minimal camera movement. Indeed, most scenes play out in a single, static wide shot, but one composed and textured so carefully, often floodlit in striking pinks and blues, that the film never feels stagey. On the contrary, little spotlit details — like a discarded, never-reclaimed pair of gloves or the toppling of a stone prayer-pile — feel peculiarly and exclusively cinematic.

Perhaps there are times when the scenarios themselves are too laden with metaphor — such as characters getting trapped awkwardly on the pond by the frozen waterfall, with the ice cracking beneath their feet. But the performances, especially from the Seo Young-hwa as the discontented erstwhile poet Eun-ju are so sure-footed that the joinery between real and unreal, literal and metaphorical is seamless. And though it observes the workings of midlife relationships with a jaded, wry eye, there’s a moment that can be seen as Eun-ju giving her blessing to her younger self to do it all over again, which gives the otherwise enigmatic narrative its tempered optimism.

Or maybe it’s fatalism. “We’re all going to become dusts some day anyway,” slurs Hyeung-ju with the lyrical sincerity of the very drunk. Just as stones fall, ice breaks and phones and gloves get lost, even in this Korean Brigadoon things do happen that can’t be undone. Yang’s lovely little film is about cycles and repetitions and the inescapability of old patterns, but time is still linear, a highway that goes in one direction only. Maybe the best we can hope for is the kind of rest stop “Winter’s Night” imagines: a pause to take stock while the car’s blinkers tick-tock like a metronome, marking the rhythm of time passing but never truly past.

Tallinn Film Review: 'Winter's Night'

Reviewed at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (Competition), November 23rd, 2018. Running Time: 98 MIN.

Production: (South Korea) A Bomnae Films and Jeonju Cinema Project 2018 production. (International Sales: M-Line Distribution, Seoul.) Producers: Kim Daehwan, Song Hyun-young. Executive Producers: Lee Choong-jik, Kim Young-jin.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Jang Woo-jin. Camera (Color, widescreen): Yang Jeong-hoon. Editor: Jang Woo-jin.

With: Seo Young-hwa, Yang Heung-ju, Lee Sang-hee, Woo Ji-hyeon, Kim Sun-young, Kim Hak-sun, Jo Kyung-sook, Park Myeung-hoon. (Korean dialogue)

More Film

  • Justin Baldoni

    Justin Baldoni Developing 'It Ends With Us' Romance Movie

    “Jane the Virgin” Star Justin Baldoni is adapting Colleen Hoover’s romance novel “It Ends With Us” for film through his Wayfarer Entertainment company. Baldoni announced Monday that he had optioned the project on his Instagram account. “It Ends With Us” first published in 2016 and follows a young woman through the tumultuous stages of an [...]

  • Matteo BocelliAmerican Icon Awards Gala, Inside,

    Top Music Manager Calls Out American Icon Awards for Failing to Pay Talent

    The centuries-old adage no good deed goes unpunished is a common refrain for star music manager Scott Rodger of late. Rodger, who represents Paul McCartney and Andrea Bocelli at Maverick, says his client Matteo Bocelli, the son of the opera star, was stiffed out of promised expense reimbursement by the American Icon Awards. The event, [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Owen Wilson

    Jennifer Lopez-Owen Wilson Film 'Marry Me' Moves Back to Universal From STX

    The Jennifer Lopez-Owen Wilson romantic comedy “Marry Me” has moved from STX back to its original home, Universal Pictures. STX previously took over the project in April. Kat Coiro is directing from a script written by John Rogers and Tami Sagher, with a rewrite by Harper Dill. Colombian singer/rapper Maluma has joined the cast and [...]

  • Austin Butler to Star as Elvis

    Austin Butler to Star as Elvis in Baz Luhrmann's Biopic

    Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic has found its king of rock ‘n’ roll. After numerous screen tests, Austin Butler has been tapped to play Elvis Presley in Luhrmann’s next feature film for Warner Bros. The studio tested with a handful of actors in full hair and make-up at the end of June to see who [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content