×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Popular on Variety

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

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” More Reviews Album Review: Samantha Fish’s ‘Kill or Be Kind’ [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content