Film Review: White Night / Baekyahaeng (2009)
White Queen, Black Pawn: A Korean Chiaroscuro
by Ender’s Girl
[Note: this film review also serves as a comparison post for White Night and the 2006 J-drama Byakuyakou. For a primer, click to read my Byakuyakou review]
Han Suk-kyu, Son Ye-jin, Go Soo, Lee Min-jeong, Park Seong-woong, Cha Hwa-yeon, Jeong Jin, Bang Joong-hyeon
Directed by Park Shin-woo; Adapted screenplay by Park Shin-woo and Park Yeon-seon / Cinema Service & Pollux Pictures, 2009
In a Nutshell:
The mysterious death of a convicted blackmailer — officially ruled as a suicide — inadvertently disentangles a snarl of perfect, untraceable crimes that have lain buried for fourteen years, and that may or may not have been perpetrated by… a 14-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl.
(SpoilLert: Very spoilery for those who haven’t read the original novel or seen the 2006 J-drama adaptation.)
[Recommended companion track: “Light and Shade” by Fra Lippo Lippi… no just kidding, lol]
Chiaroscuro: An effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Who knew that the main theme from “Swan Lake” could serve as the PERFECT backdrop for both… murder and sex? The opening sequence of Park Shin-woo’s 2009 film White Night is a stark juxtaposition of these two disparate events: a beautiful woman makes love to her man on the immaculate white sheets of her bed, while a man in black garrotes a seedy-looking ex-con in his seedier-looking digs.
As Tchaikovsky’s iconic score sweeps into its emotional crescendo, you realize with disconcerting clarity that murder and sex actually have much more in common than you’d like to think. Both are extremely physical acts involving the use brute force with each jerk, twist and thrust; both are also highly intimate acts wherein one invades the personal space of the other, and bits of soul are exchanged in the process. Little or no dialogue gets said, but the grunts and pants of exertion are heard as the participants engage in the single-minded consummation of The Act. Everything else is obliterated until climax is achieved; and whether it comes as death or orgasm, the physical manifestations are indistinguishable: the paroxysmal stiffening of the body, the voiding of body fluids, even the sacrificial shedding of blood. So is the aftermath the same: the slackening of the body muscles and the emptying of the mind as inactivity and quiet settle over the persons involved.
If anything can be inferred from this opening sequence, it is that something so life-extinguishing as a killing, and something so life-affirming as the act of lovemaking, are but two sides of the same coin, two opposites aligned in perpetual syzygy. This duality is more than a stylistic one; more importantly it is a thematic one, for within all of us is that inbuilt mechanism that enables us to swing from one antipode to the other through the choices that we make: Life or death… Love or hate… Vice or virtue, purity or depravity… Black or white, light or darkness, sun or shadow. And it is this “fearful symmetry” of the human condition that the film White Night unsparingly takes us through, zeroing in on two individuals who turn into the victims and the transgressors in their own tragic tale. This is their story.
If the Higashino Keigo novel on which this film is based starts fifteen years in the past and then wends its way down into the present, the narrative of White Night endeavors a different tack by beginning in the present, to bifurcate chronologically backward and forward while leaving it up to the viewer to piece together the events as they unfold. The convicted blackmailer’s death by hanging in his squalid little apartment is, to all appearances, a suicide, but two people know otherwise: the viewer, who has just witnessed his murder at the hand of the black-clad man, and Detective Jo Min-woo (played to shades-sporting gusto by Bang Joong-hyeon), who remains unconvinced that a person who had just renewed the lease on his unit would readily take his own life.
As Detective Jo Min-woo follows his instincts and probes into the man’s past, he begins to unearth a deep-rooted nexus of relationships linking the dead man, Kang Jae-doo (Jeong Ing-gi), to several other individuals who were either directly implicated in — or some way connected to — a bizarre homicide case in the port of Incheon fourteen years ago. The film takes us back to this time and place, where Detective Hang Dong-soo (Han Suk-kyu) and his partner Park Tae-ho (Jeong Jin) of the West Incheon Police District are called to a crime scene deep in the bowels of an abandoned old ship. Lying dead on the floor is a wealthy pawnshop owner with a single deep stab wound through his chest. The murder weapon is gone; equally puzzling, so is the victim’s favorite lighter. Even more baffling is how the killer could’ve gotten away when the door was locked from the inside, and the only means of escape was this narrow air vent that snaked upwards through a cramped stairwell.
The film intercuts between these two investigative timelines, and a viewer unfamiliar with the Keigo novel or the 2006 TBS drama adaptation will soon come to realize that when the two threads meet in the chronological middle, they become one continuous story arc with as many influent subplots as there are players in this sprawling twin murder mystery fifteen years in the solving. And twisting through and around this murder arc are two individual threads, one black and one white, two intertwined lives that only exist for and because of each other.
We know that the black-clad man, Kim Yo-han (Go Soo) is our present-day murderer, but his tortured yet lucid eyes give away the fact that he is no psychopath, that he has derived no pleasure from the deed, and that this was no random slaying incidental to a robbery or some petty crime. So then why did he commit this act, and more importantly — for whom? And what is his relationship to the stunning, ivory-pale woman from the opening sequence, Yoo Mi-ho (Son Ye-jin), whom we learn is a budding designer set to open a tony boutique financed by her lover? Yo-han and Mi-ho are never seen in public together, yet something gives away their heightened awareness of each other, regardless of where they are or what they’re doing. And you suspect that those white envelopes left in the train station locker have much to do with their connection, probably as a means to communicate. Which naturally leads to the next question: why do they want to keep their relationship a secret?
The answers to these questions begin to reveal themselves in telling ways as the story advances. And key to unlocking the radix of this human riddle is that long-forgotten double homicide case from Incheon, now cold for fourteen years, and which eventually cost the lead investigator Han Dong-soo both his professional and personal happiness.
Unless you’re a fan of the original novel and/or the J-drama (meaning you would have seen this film anyway), I would recommend White Night for two things, and two things alone. One is the direction and editing; the other is Han Suk-kyu as Detective Han Dong-soo.
The detective character was originally written to be a man in his 50s (which, according to reports, was the reason why the forty-something Han Suk-kyu initially felt iffy about taking the role), so this youth factor obviously makes the White Night version a more dynamic and mobile person. Han Dong-soo also comes across as a character less… menacing than veteran actor Takeda Tetsuya’s interpretation of Detective Sasagaki. (Man, but that leathery-faced ojiisan gave me the shivers watching the first few episodes of Byakuyakou, back when I was still trying to decode the various characters. Deep down I always knew he couldn’t be bad, but a part of me was holding out for that possibility, as the drama was my introduction to the psychological cosmos of the story.)
Byakuyakou’s Detective Sasagaki was my favorite character in the whole drama, and I was hoping that Han Suk-kyu would at least match Takeda Tetsuya’s rendition with a different — but just as effective — interpretation. And oh boy, did he deliver. I could not believe this was the same dude from Christmas in August. (I’d watch White Night again for you, sir!!! Which I actually did, lol.) Han Suk-kyu unarguably makes Han Dong-soo the most compelling character in this film by a wide, wide margin. He has every facet of this character nailed — from the gruff and gritty personality tinged with caustic humor, to the penetrating gaze missing nothing, to those razor-sharp instincts telling him that despite the circumstantial evidence, the clues simply. don’t. tally. up.
Some people grow into a job, while others are born for it. Watching Han Dong-soo at work (interesting how it never felt like I was watching the actor Han Suk-kyu at work, so immersed was he in the role) convinced me that this man was born to be a bloodhound, was born to ferret out the truth even in places (and especially in places) where it was obscured the most. Each lead that Han Dong-soo pursues — a cassette tape found at the crime scene, the empty cake box and unexplained money transfers linking the deceased pawnbroker to an impoverished single mother (Jo Kyeung-sook) and her resentful 14-year-old daughter Lee Ji-ah (Joo Da-yeong), or the curious absence of spill stains on the side of the pot in the kitchen where the same mother apparently gassed herself to death — brings the detective closer to the bottom of this case as he negotiates all the moral gradations and layers of deception making up this cryptic chiaroscuro.
Acting on his detective’s intuition, Han Dong-soo holds nobody above suspicion — not even a couple of 14-year-olds who appear not to know each other. (His partner Park Tae-ho reproaches him in the middle of their investigation — “You treat people like beasts.” — and gets a slap on the face for it along with the trenchant admonition, “A murderer is worse than a brute, got it?”) But perhaps only such unrelenting impartiality can enable Dong-soo to cut through the adult sentimentality and naïveté that have ruled out the girl and boy’s involvement in the deaths of their own parents. Satisfied with the apparent crime of passion + suicide angle, Dong-soo’s superiors declare the cases closed — a resolution that is unacceptable to the detective, who takes it upon himself to solve the mystery himself even if it means defying a direct order, even if it consumes his life, and even if it claims the one person most precious to him in the whole world.
There is an added dimension to the detective’s character that is not present in the drama Byakuyakou: his relationship with his young son Min-jae. (In the J-drama, Detective Sasagaki is too old to have a son that age, and we never really learn about his personal life — not that I ever complained, his character was compelling as it was.) I liked how this father-son dynamic humanizes Dong-soo — Min-jae calls him at work to pester him for a long-promised bicycle, Dong-soo tries to mollify his kid, etc. — BUT it was a stretch of the imagination that Dong-soo would bring his son to the rusty old ship just to test his theory that only a child could fit into the stairwell leading from the crime scene.
I understand how obsessed Dong-soo was in trying to prove his superiors wrong, but using his OWN SON for such a dangerous undertaking??? Oh come on. That neither fit in with how Dong-soo’s character was written (=practical and efficient), nor with basic human logic itself. The ensuing tragedy was obviously intended to be the emotional fulcrum upon which Detective Dong-soo’s life would take a turn for the worse in the next fourteen years leading up to the present-day events in the film: his marriage falls apart, he never gets promoted at work, he becomes a sickly shell of his former assertive self. But I just wasn’t convinced that his crime-solving idée fixe merited such an arbitrarily tragic occurrence as Min-jae’s death.
There is a wonderful dynamic between Detective Dong-soo and his egghead partner Tae-ho (Jeong Jin, whom I best remember as Eric Mun’s manga-loving otaku BFF from Super Rookie, FTW!), with Tae-ho’s folksy, self-effacing mien and cerebral sensibilities serving as the perfect counterpoint to Dong-soo’s steely efficiency, inerrant gut feel and street smarts. One of my favorite moments is their little exchange about the “Gone with the Wind” novel and film — neither of which Tae-ho had read or seen, lol — while the two wait for Lee Ji-ah’s mother to come home. Dong-soo and Tae-ho’s professional and personal relationship is REAL in every respect, with humor and tension adding texture to their contrasting temperaments. Later scenes in the film will show that the two experienced a reversal in stature and position over the fourteen-year intermission. And when the murder of the blackmailer Kang Jae-doo sparks a fresh fillip to the cold case and shakes Dong-soo out of his stagnation, he will have to turn to his old partner Tae-ho, now the police chief, for help in tracking down the real killers before the statute of limitations expires.
Fans of the original novel and/or drama will watch with great interest how Han Dong-soo treats the two children Lee Ji-ah and Kim Yo-han in the course of the Incheon investigation. His loaded interchange with Ji-ah, though lightly conversational on the surface, is a terrific study in subtext and psychological conditioning. (And the detective doesn’t realize until much, much later that he had swallowed everything the girl had skillfully thrown his way.) Even Han Dong-soo’s weirdly affectionate, solicitous and paternal manner towards Yo-han is a method in his truth-seeking process. At the height of the investigation Dong-soo seeks Yo-han out in his room, and after a deceptively casual line of questioning, leans over the boy’s shoulder and speaks softly into his ear, “I will catch the murderer.” But with the detective nothing is ever unplanned, and you know that both he and Yo-han know that his pronouncement is less an assurance for the bereaved, than a grim warning that justice WILL be served by whatever means possible.
Besides Han Suk-kyu, the best thing about White Night is the direction and editing. Despite its non-linear timeline, there is a marvelous continuity throughout the film. The leaps in chronology and setting will keep you on edge, but they never feel jarring even though the viewer is later left to sort out which scenes are taking place in the present, and which took place in the past. And I just LOVE how Park Shin-woo uses visual cues as a focal point for scene transitions and mood switches, making his cutaways nothing short of seamless, as seen in these examples:
- Yoo Mi-ho (Son Ye-jin) looks at her posh bedroom’s translucent window ablaze with white light; then cut to another window in a dark and dingy apartment, where Go Soo’s character Kim Yo-han carries out his execution of the convicted blackmailer Kang Jae-doo.
- Kang Jae-doo asks the boy Yo-han if he answered the detective according to what they had rehearsed; then cut to a balding, present-day picture of Jae-doo in the case dossier being perused by Detective Jo Min-woo.
- Lee Ji-ah asks from the doorway of their apartment, “Is my mom really dead?” while their landlord is on the floor, trying to revive her mother. Cut to Detective Han Dong-soo in the same apartment later that day, looking up from the same spot on the floor where the landlord and Ji-ah’s mother had been, and the camera shows his partner Tae-ho coming through the door, from the same position where Lee Ji-ah had been.
- In another flashback Dong-soo’s son Min-jae falls down the stairwell — but we don’t see his body, just the stricken face of his father. Cut to the present, where a mannequin’s torso is lying on the floor of a boutique while Detective Jo Min-woo is interrogating the boutique proprietress, and we see the dummy’s limbs bent at awkward angles, as if to simulate exactly what had happened to Dong-soo’s boy fourteen years earlier.
Finally, there is the brilliant conceptualization of the scene towards the end of the film where Detective Dong-soo “witnesses” the boy Yo-han’s terrible act of parricide in that rusty old ship, as well as the immediate damage control that ensues as the children shakily conspire to cover up the death. This is done through both flashback and re-imagining, but the overall execution is so smooth and flawless, and after Park Shin-woo uses most of the film to prime the viewer for this Big Reveal, this moment hits all the emotional, psychological and narrative notes SPOT ON. Given the retrospective, not-showing-my-hand-till-the-end structure of the film, this was the BEST possible treatment anyone could’ve thought up. Definitely my favorite scene in White Night.
It would be impossible to review White Night without comparing it to the haunting J-drama starring Yamada Takayuki and Ayase Haruka. A number of key differences surface between the two adaptations, mainly in chronology and plot structure, as well as in the treatment certain scenes and characters are given. For one, the spot where Yo-han’s father is stabbed to death is changed from a building under construction, to an old abandoned ship. The effect is 934383843 times scarier than in the drama: it’s hard to top the claustrophobic feel of the dark and narrow passages and doors of 6-in-thick steel that clang shut behind you, and the fact that you’re in an enclosed vessel partially submerged in the water gives the overall feeling you’re in this Stygian sinkhole, in the very bowels of hell — which is very apt considering the sordidness of the crimes committed in that place. (And I don’t mean the stabbing, but what had been transpiring before then.) Another welcome change from drama to film is how Yo-han and Ji-ah (now Yoo Mi-ho) communicate via the yellow lockers at the train station: anonymous, untraceable, and 394738 times more secure than through letters left inside a public library book, tsk.
While I didn’t necessarily love the drama adaptation (for how can you love something so… disturbing?), in my Byakuyakou review I noted what for me was the drama’s strongest point, which was the rich and involving character study of Ryouji and Yukiho as you witness the loss of their innocence, their tumultuous passage from childhood to adulthood. Being closer to the novel in chronological flow (but not in POV, as the novel uses a different character’s POV per chapter), the J-drama Byakuyakou begins from Point A (= main characters are children!) and ends in Point B (= they are damaged killers!), but takes the viewer on a grinding trek through the infinite number of points in between. It wasn’t a pretty ride, and many times throughout the drama I wanted to turn my head away from the horrific developments, so sickened was I to my core, but at least I was invested, I was there, I got to know these two children before their Fall, and I got to go on the entire journey with them, as both a powerless observer and a silent accomplice to their crimes.
I did not see this in the film, simply because the narrative framework has no provision for it. White Night starts from Point B (set in the present, where Yo-han is already a killer and Lee Mi-ho, while ambiguous at this point, nevertheless gives viewers the feeling that she, too, has dark secrets of her own), and it’s only in the second half of the film that we are taken to Point A (set fourteen/fifteen years earlier) and can finally cement the ties that bind Yo-han and Ji-ah (or Mi-ho) to the twin deaths that Detective Han Dong-soo investigated back in Incheon.
But this reversal in storytelling, while a bold and inspired step, is also the film’s biggest shortcoming in terms of character development, because it does not fill in or flesh out the blanks between Points A and B — the way the drama did. The obvious reason for this is that film and television are two very different mediums: you can only cram so much of the material into a little over two hours, while an 11-episode drama has ample time to build on the narrative. Perhaps that is why I came away from the film feeling dissatisfied; I realized that much of my beef was with how I never really got to know the characters of Yo-han and Ji-ah/Mi-ho the way I did their J-drama counterparts Kirihara Ryouji (played by the brilliant Yamada Takayuki) and Nishimoto Yukiho (Ayase Haruka).
White Night does try its best to reveal Yo-han and Ji-ah/Mi-ho’s backstories in the film’s final act, but the scenes formulated for this purpose — Yo-han and Mi-ho’s standoff in the rain, Yo-han stabbing his father in the flashback scene, etc. — are “unleashed” on the viewer towards the very end, so they feel a bit rushed and deny the viewer the whole experience of saturating in the harrowing loss of these children’s innocence, or being sucked down their slippery vortex into perversion and madness. But this is really the failing of the format more than anything else: when the source material is as dense and labyrinthine as the original novel “Byakuyakou,” then a 135-min. movie, no matter how tightly plotted or well-edited, will always come up short.
The source material may have been a Japanese novel, but this film adaptation’s Korean melo pedigree is very much apparent in certain scenes — like the elaborate rigging of the car accident, the circumstances of Detective Dong-soo’s son’s death, and even the scene where Lee Ji-ah’s aunt (Ye Soo-jeong) adopts her and changes her name to Mi-ho, after her dead daughter. Ehhhh — WTF? That’s just so freaky, man. In the drama Byakuyakou, nothing like this ever happened. (Yukiho took on her adoptive mother’s family name of Karasawa, but retained her given name.) Actually, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen in real life, which is why — again — it only came off as just another K-drama/K-movie contrivance meant to ring up more sentiment — but failing anyway. I got nothing from Mi-ho’s relationship with her adoptive mother, unlike in the J-drama, where I could feel the uneasy tension between Yukiho and Karasawa Reiko (Yachigusa Kaoru) because the elderly lady could sense something amiss about her young ward, and even secretly feared Yukiho and what she was capable of. There was no such dynamic in the film, just another flat and dimensionless Token Adoptive Relationship.
But the most overdone scene BAR NONE would be the “Nighttime Standoff in the Pelting Rain” incident as the film comes to a head. That was clearly played up for pure dramatic effect, but — SO FAIL. This is the point where Yo-han decides he’s had enough of this sh*t and draws the line at raping the teenage daughter of Mi-ho’s chaebol boyfriend, and so he seeks a face-to-face with Mi-ho for the first time in public. At a freaking pedestrian crossing, while the “Don’t walk” sign is still flashing. So there he is IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD, cars honking and swerving past him, and a throng of pedestrians watching (agape, presumably) from the sidewalk (and probably also muttering, “jeez whatta nutjob”) while the tall man in the black hoodie jacket talks into his handset and gesticulates with a crumpled photo of Yeong-eun in his fist, while staring STRAIGHT AT the chic young woman in the white trench coat on the other side of the street — and whaddyaknow, she’s the only other pedestrian there who also has a cell phone to her ear!!! DURRR. I mean, WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE, PEOPLE.
What makes this scene far less effective than it could’ve been is Yoo Mi-ho’s “I killed my mum for you, okay!!! Now do my bidding, pawn! Faster pussycat, kill kill!!!” guilt-trippin’ stunt she pulls on Yo-han (which works like clockwork every bleepin’ time). This moment is the Big Reveal for the viewer, the penultimate (but indispensable) jigsaw piece in the narrative puzzle (the ultimate piece being the flashback of the boy Yo-han stabbing his father). But for such a declaration/confession to come from Yoo Mi-ho’s own lips is not only anticlimactic, but counterproductive to the whole intent of the film, which was to NOT spell things out for the viewer, but to instead allow the viewer to arrive at the conclusion through cleverly and carefully placed clues and bits of flashback, or to realize this through the POV of Detective Han Dong-soo himself (which is why a later scene where Han Dong-soo “witnesses” the original killing in the old abandoned ship, is such a powerful moment both expositionally and emotionally). Mi-ho’s (unnecessary) reminder to Yo-han that it was she who had framed her own mother for the crime and then gassed her to death, rings hollow for the viewer because the challenge of solving the film-long mystery gets flushed down the drain.
And I get how the writer wanted to underscore the so-near-yet-so-far, ne’er-the-twain-shall-meet tortured distancing that Yo-han and Mi-ho maintain over the years. So yes, the two are careful to never be seen talking in public throughout the interminable 15-year wait, but oh — what’s this??? — their condo units are right across from each other!!! (And on the same floor too!) And Mi-ho spends a few times a week hanging out at the café beside the LoRo bar and bistro where Yo-han works (and which his sugar cougar of a patroness owns)!!! Yo-han and Mi-ho take so many risky chances being seen in the same locale too frequently, that you wonder if they maybe wished to get caught after all. (Plus, this second setup only made it too easy for Yo-han to discover Cha Seung-jo’s own little Nancy Drew, Lee Min-jeong, conducting her stakeout of Mi-ho from her window table inside LoRo. Great. Coincidence — or plot contrivance? Either way that’s lazy writing in my book.)
And after Yo-han rigs the car accident, he spends the rest of the morning shtupping his Sugar Cougar, then in a post-coital moment of introspection, bleakly utters the words I HAD SO HOPED I’D NEVER HEAR IN THIS FILM: “I want to walk… under the Sun.” Oh NOES!!! Oh NOES!!! Here we go again, boys and girls!!! Just what I hated from Byakuyakou — The tropes!!! The visual imagery!!! The self-indulgent navel-gazing!!! Oh great, just great. In a later scene, it is — Mi-ho’s turn!!! A friend admiringly tells her as they stand outside the M&Y Homme boutique, “The bright sunlight seems to shine on you…” Then we see Mi-ho’s face darken momentarily as she replies with equal poetic measure, “The sun never existed in my life. All I had was this thin ray of light.” And you can just see how the friend’s face is like, “Um — ohhhkay… where did THAT just come from?” (lol) I get how the writer probably wanted to show a rare unguarded moment that would make Mi-ho more… textured? complex? human? — but it only seemed written more for effect than anything else, as if there were a Trope Quota that Park Shin-woo was rushing to fill before the film was over, lol.
Thankfully, the other familiar thingamabobs from the drama, like the snowflake cutouts and the “Gone with the Wind” paperback, only figure in a few scenes in White Night and don’t swallow up the rest of the film. (Okay, so only “Gone with the Wind” felt like a contrivance both in the drama and the movie, and I never liked its inclusion in either; but I was actually quite fond of the paper snowflakes — especially when Go Soo was the one broodingly snipping them out in his darkened bedroom, obviously as a form of catharsis. The man can cut paper MOAR!!! sexily than his Byakuyakou analog Yamada Takayuki, I’ll say.)
Mi-ho’s construction magnate lover Cha Seung-jo (Park Seung-woong) comes across as more powerful and ruthless than his J-drama counterpart Takamiya Makoto (Shioya Shun), who is portrayed in Byakuyakou as a weak-willed (if well-meaning) sucker who quickly becomes disillusioned with his cold young wife Yukiho shortly after their (loveless) marriage. The Cha Seung-jo character in White Night can actually be considered an amalgam of both Takamiya Makoto and his cannier, more perceptive friend, the pharmaceuticals heir Shinozuka Kazunari (played by Kashiwabara Takashi in the drama, FTW!!!). Because it is Shinozuka, and not Takamiya who probes into Yukiho’s past, acting on his long-standing distrust of her since their first meeting at the university. But the main difference is that Shinozuka does the background check himself, while in the movie, Cha Seung-jo orders his personal assistant Lee Si-yeong (Lee Min-jeong) to do the snooping. (‘Coz chaebols obviously have better things to do, yo.)
In this sense, Cha Seung-jo is a more formidable force to reckon with than either Shinozuka or Takamiya, being driven by shrewder and more mercenary instincts. Seung-jo’s interest in Mi-ho’s background is really a way of protecting his investments, girlfriend included — i.e. “I’m rich and don’t want my name and reputation sullied by a few skeletons in my trophy-wife-to-be’s closet.” At the same time there is that niggling feeling about Mi-ho that Seung-jo can’t quite shake off, something that causes him to wonder if this beautiful, soft-spoken and sweet-faced woman is truly who or what she seems — i.e. “Why does Mi-ho ALWAYS look miserable (or play dead) whenever we’re makin’ hot chaebol nookie on my Bergdorf Goodman linens, wazzup widdat?” (Lol) But seriously, I didn’t quite get WHY Son Ye-jin was on the verge of tears in that bed scene opening the film. I know her character’s victimization by a pedophile probably turned her off the sexual act forever, but you’d think she’d at least TRY to look like she enjoyed makin’ whoopee. Instead, the impression I got was that this was Son Ye-jin trying to send the viewer a Coded!Message! at the beginning of the film that Something!Is!Amiss!Here!!! rather than staying true to the character.
And Lee Min-jeong as Si-yeong the Snoopy? SOOOOO miscast. Girl can’t act for sh*t. Her sloe-eyed loveliness is wasted on the role because she simply doesn’t know how to use those eyes to express what she’s thinking or feeling. The whole time she reminded me of a gentler… Kim Tae-hee, lol… a much, much gentler Kim Tae-hee. When Lee Min-jeong’s sleuthing takes her dangerously close to sniffing out Mi-ho’s past, Yo-han (upon Mi-ho’s instigation) tampers with the brakes of Cha Seung-jo’s car just so Mi-ho can save Cha Seung-jo when the car skids and turn-turtles — and in so doing, dispel whatever doubts he has left as to her motives and background. Wow. Okay. That was a bit too much, I sez to mesself. I don’t care how desperate Mi-ho was to cover her tracks, but this ruse was just too risky, there were too many variables that could’ve gone wrong for Mi-ho, like — oh I dunno, the car exploding BEFORE Mi-ho could rescue her chaebol dude? Or I dunno, Cha Seung-jo dying on the spot from a broken skull?
The whole setup just wasn’t a believable recourse for Mi-ho or Yo-han to take given their history of well-calculated scheming and careful subterfuge. All their lives, since they were children, Mi-ho and Yo-han never relied on anything or anyone else for their plans to succeed — and certainly not on luck or mere chance. The fact that the rigged “accident” as part of Mi-ho’s “Operation: Hoodwink My Chaebol” turned out the way it did — Cha Seung-jo comes clean about the background check!!! Cha Seung-jo all but fires Nancy Drew!!! Cha Seung-jo proposes marriage to Mi-ho!!! Mi-ho will have all the moolah she wants!!! — was largely attributable to luck, and therefore highly uncharacteristic of Yo-han and Mi-ho’s methodology.
And — oh, whaddya know, 4,562 words written and still no mention of Son Ye-jin or Go Soo’s acting!!! Heh heh heh. Well, they weren’t really given much to do for the first ¾ of the film except look wan and melancholic (Son Ye-jin) and bleak and tortured (Go Soo). Son Ye-jin is one of the K-actors I’ve followed since the Hallyu boom (Summer Scent was “eeehhh,” A Moment to Remember was “OHMYGOSHILOVETHIS,” Alone in Love was “woah, you’re a Real Actor now!!! just like Gam Woo-sung!!!” , etc.), and I know she’s capable of a more nuanced performance than her Dying Swan portrayal of Ji-ah/Mi-ho for the entire span of this movie (barring the final act, at which point she morphs into Psycho Swan!!!). But her acting in White Night largely left me underwhelmed, although I know it wasn’t so much Son Ye-jin’s limited grasp of the role as the limited canvas on which her character was drawn.
Again, these two actors playing Mi-ho and Yo-han just didn’t have enough to work with in terms of dialogue and scene count because of the film’s structuring. Even the child actors Joo Da-yeong (as Ji-ah) and Won Deok-hyeon (as Yo-han) turn in solid and sympathetic performances but don’t leave a lasting impression on the viewer because they figure in the narrative more as an afterthought visited in flashback, than as the central focus of the story — unlike their counterparts in Byakuyakou (Fukuda Mayuko and Izumisawa Yuki), who were nothing short of stellar, and who benefited from writing that fleshed out all aspects of their compound characters.
But Mi-ho’s relationship with Cha Seung-jo’s teenage daughter adds a facet to her character that the J-drama did not have. It was interesting to watch and see how the girl, Chae Yeong-eun (Hong Ji-hee) would figure in the narrative. Mi-ho and Yo-han realize that as each obstacle to their freedom is methodically eliminated, it is Yeong-eun’s animosity towards her father’s girlfriend that is left as the final roadblock. And Mi-ho’s solution is not to stiff the girl (she could never do that and still keep Seung-jo’s trust), but to punish her, to break her spirit, to turn her heart towards Mi-ho. And oh man, how they pull this off. The writing makes a big deal out of this development, as it is Yo-han’s Final!Straw! that causes him to question everything he has ever done to carry out Mi-ho’s bidding. He may be a ruthless killer, but to attack and molest an innocent girl goes well beyond the bounds of whatever scrap of decency he has left. But of course he does it anyway.
Also interesting is how the Cha Yeong-eun angle brings out Mi-ho’s own sexual perversion in a way that Byakuyakou the drama did not touch on. In both the drama and the film, Ryouji/Yo-han’s inability to climax is liberally mentioned (it isn’t shown in the film, but the drama traces Ryouji’s disorder to the act of necrophilia that Yukiho asked him to commit back in college), but only the film shows how Lee Ji-ah’s sexual abuse that she suffered as a child would later manifest itself in her deviant behavior towards Yeong-eun. Man, but that weird sh*t Mi-ho pulled on Yeong-eun in the aftermath of the girl’s rape, was just so WTFreako. *dry-heaves* But it overlays the Mi-ho character with a twistedness absent from the J-drama’s Yukiho, who comes off as more cold-blooded and calculating (which is also why Ayase’s performance was more effective than Son Ye-jin’s), but not quite as sexually warped as Mi-ho is in the film.
And Go Soo as the Black Swan (Odile? er… Odilo? lulz) — er, I meant the Black Pawn who does his Queen’s bidding? Never looked cuter — whether he’s, um, stringing up his dead father’s ex-employee, or smoothly pouring a nosy little lady a cuppa coffee, or dry-heaving on the sidewalk, or dutifully boffing his benefactress. Oh I’m sorreee, am I supposed to be talking about his acting? Lulz. Although I couldn’t identify much with the character, at least the eye candy was very… gratifying. Post-military service muscles? Black hoodies and leatherwear? Gunmetal gray vest and blazer? And ohmygoodness, that wavy mop of hair? YES YES YES. Watch this film if only for his hunky goodness… I would in a heartbeat. (Okay maybe… not.) And oh, right, the acting. Well… let’s just say Go Soo was never my favorite go-to guy in that department. I first saw him in Green Rose, where I felt that his emotionally wanting performance failed to do justice to his complex, Count-of-Monte-Cristo-ish character. (I found Lee Da-hae’s acting more on the button.) But here in White Night I’d say he’s improved considerably since Green Rose, and is far more effective in the scenes where he lets his hooded eyes and facial muscles do the talking.
Like I mentioned, the performances from Son Ye-jin and Go Soo become more riveting as the film nears its climax. When the kid gloves come off (and, in the case of Mi-ho, those clawwws come a-flexing too), so do the masks. The actors’ finest moments likewise stand out only when the cracks start showing through their characters’ impregnable composure to expose the putrefaction within. The final standoff between Yo-han and Detective Han Dong-soo high above the glass-domed roof of Mi-ho’s newly opened boutique squeezes out the screaming desperation and gut-wrenching sadness inside Yo-han’s tortured soul as he stares down the end of his own gutted life, and makes his final choice with Han Dong-soo as his witness. And the detective can offer no comfort but this plaintive apology: “Mianhada… for not catching you sooner.” (Oh man. Wow.)
And as Yo-han crashes through the ceiling, wounded by his own hand, to land in the dead center of the gleaming white floor of the boutique amid the shrieks of the VIP guests, it is Mi-ho’s turn to face her moment of truth. Son Ye-jin’s face is terrific here, briefly registering indecision and horror before her features harden with resolve. Han Dong-soo, reaching Ground Zero, squares off with Mi-ho one last time, challenging her to own up to her deeds — and to this man lying before her. Dong-soo asks Mi-ho point-blank how she can NOT know Yo-han, and backed into a corner, Mi-ho chooses to save herself: to deny any association with Yo-han, to keep her boutique and her money, and to savor the freedom that will legally be hers when the statute of limitations expires come midnight.
So Mi-ho disowns the dying Yo-han — but here the rejection is more patent and unequivocal than in the drama. Queen sacrifices Pawn. Checkmate, baby. But in Byakuyakou, Ayase Haruka walks away from the mortally wounded Yamada Takayuki as a result of a decision they have made together, through their eye contact, Yamada’s outstretched finger, and that unspoken understanding between them — i.e. “I give you permission to deny me.” In White Night, this is a decision that Mi-ho makes entirely on her own, because… um… Go Soo just LIES there in his own puddle of blood DOING NOTHING. LOLLL WHY. He’s OBVIOUSLY still alive, but all he does is stare glassily at the broken ceiling. I wish he had so much as turned his head and communicated with Son Ye-jin, even if only through his eyes. At least in the J-drama, Yamada Takayuki and Ayase Haruka were more… interactive, lulz.
So yeah, this climactic moment from White Night is sad as hell… although its drama counterpart has a far deeper and more lasting impact on the viewer, because watching Byakuyakou you really get to witness ALL that Yukiho makes Ryouji do for her, from necrophilia to assault to murder, and you see how this makes a monster out of him, how he becomes both her Lover and her Lackey, both Devotee and Drudge, her Prince and her Pawn. And for Ryouji to bleed to death on the sidewalk AFTER EVERYTHING both you (as the viewer) and they have experienced, is infinitely more tragic to watch than what transpires in the dying moments of White Night. Like I said earlier, the film adaptation misses out on the main attraction of the whole STORY of “Byakuyakou,” which is the JOURNEY, the tortuous descent into madness and despair and the rottenness of the human condition.
The dialogue-free scene at the very end of White Night is designed to amplify the tragedy of Mi-ho and Yo-han’s ruined lives using a Polaroid snapshot of their happier times in high school. This undeniably wrenches some measure of sympathy from the viewer, but from a more objective standpoint, it makes little narrative sense. Did these kids not promise to break all public contact with each other? In the drama, Yukiho even moved to another town shortly before junior high, so the two were living in separate locales and attending different schools starting from their early teens. This lovely, sun-kissed coda of White Night somehow gives the viewer the (false) impression that everything was hunky-dory during Mi-ho and Yo-han’s teenage years, when the original story makes it clear that the two had been conniving and carrying out their dark deeds — attempted rape and blackmail, etc. etc. — from around this time. So the film’s lingering final shot of Ji-ah/Mi-ho sitting serenely on a schoolyard bench while Yo-han bikes around her in circles smiling shyly, and all set to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” is actually the quintessential K-drama/K-film tableau: prettily shot and extremely sentimental, but really beside the point.
Here ends my comparison of White Night and Byakuyakou based on the crime novel by Higashino Keigo. I hope to someday read the book — in Engrish please! — but in the meantime, the translated synopses of the first few chapters of “Byakuyakou” can be found in yanie’s LiveJournal. (For the unacquainted, yanie is a longtime J-dorama observer and — even better — a hardcore SMAP fan. Sensei! lolz) As for these two adaptations, neither one is close to perfect, but I dare predict that one of them, despite its obvious flaws (and all outlined in my review), is destined to become a TV drama classic, while the other, in spite of some strong performances and brilliant editing, will most likely be swallowed up in the Twilight Zone of good-but-not-great filmmaking.
Artistic & technical merit: B+
Entertainment value: B-
Do not go gentle into that [white] night…
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
– Dylan Thomas
Photo credits: hancinema.net, koreanmovie.com, uisceros.livejournal.com