White Night is one part of a loose trilogy of films about male desire by South Korean director Hee-il Leesong. The director, who also wrote the film, is carving out a small reputation as a film maker with a focus on queer issues. This feature is loosely based around a real life hate crime that happened in Jong-No, where the film is set. Won Gyu (Won Tae Hee) is a gay airline steward back in his native South Korea for the day, and is keen to embark on old and new sexual experiences. We meet an ex-lover, evidently embittered by their break up, and sore from the mysterious circumstances surrounding Won Gyu’s departure.
Next up we see Won Gyu attempt to hook up with Tae-Jun (Yi Yi-kyung), a repressed courier eager to meet up with his online crush. It is a clear clash of personalities from the start; Tae-Jun is looking for a more meaningful interaction, while Won Gyu is only after a quick fuck in a public toilet. When their fumbling encounter ends up in farcical territory, Won Gyu attempts to blackmail Tae-Jun into seeing out the night with him – he doesn’t want to be alone in the few hours before his next flight. They sit down to tea at a local bar, and that is when Won Gyu sees an unwelcome face from the past. This is the encounter that stirs violent memories of Won Gyu’s time in Jong-No, and leads the two lovers into a dangerous night…
White Night is essentially a two hander between Won Gyu and Tae Jun, a distorted romance and a character study of two alienated souls. Both have had to deal with hostility to their sexuality, but each has chosen a different way of responding to it; Won Gyu fleeing from place to place, never stopping to think, while Tae Jun seeks to hide himself from harm. Although the film makes a left turn into revenge drama territory, Hee-il Leesong keeps the focus on the two characters journeys.
Won Tae Hee and Yi Yi-kyung are both fine as the odd couple lovers, giving understated performances that quietly move the audience rather than shriek for their attention. The film is shot in a leisurely, unobtrusive fashion in the vein of fellow Korean Lee Chang Dong, although eschewing his touches of light surrealism. There are little dabs of folk and ambient music to soundtrack the city streets, although not much to make an impression. Although the idea of an odd couple seeking revenge for a hate crime is fresh and original one, the film is perhaps too sedate to make an impression. At only 75 minutes it is a relatively short feature, but even so Hee-il Leesong fluffs up the film with endless long takes of characters smoking and looking ruefully into the distance. This, as discerning viewers may note, is perhaps the last resort for art house film makers with a dearth of ideas.