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 (Lee Sang-hee) and the girl (Woo Ji-hyeon) 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.