Director Jang Woo-jin delivers his most carefully designed work to date.
Returning with his third film to the festival where he picked up the top Korean Competition prize for his debut A Fresh Start, director Jang Woo-jin delivers his most carefully designed work to date with Winter's Night, one of this year's Jeonju Cinema Projects at the Jeonju International Film Festival. Yet for all its artistry and clear merit, a film with a strong opening act slowly loses its way as intriguing threads become muddled through thickly layered symbolic overtures that recall a great many similar Korean independent works, not to mention Jang's previous film Autumn, Autumn.
A middle-aged couple are on a trip to Chuncheon, a countryside town popular with Seoul day-trippers, which they haven't visited since they first meet over 30 years ago. After visiting a temple on an island the wife realizes she has left her phone behind. They take the ferry back to the island and wind up stuck there for the night. At the same time a young woman and a man on leave from his military service are also stuck on the island. Over the course of an uncomfortable night, the four characters cross paths as they contemplate their pasts and futures.
Starting with a middle-aged couple getting a ride with a loquacious cabbie in a car that follows the camera, the film echoes the backwards car tracking shots of Kim Dae-hwan's The First Lap, one of last year's JCPs and a film which Jang produced (meanwhile Kim also produced Winter's Night and features in a small cameo). Laced with comedy, nostalgia and introspection, the lengthy scene kicks the film off as it means to continue. Each scene in Winter's Night plays out in one shot, and as the movie wears on, the shots become longer and begin to encompass pairs of scenes as couples swap out in the same location.
The couple searches for the phone as night falls on the island and as they go deeper into the night and meet the young couple that segue into the younger versions of themselves, the colors of the film become more and more surreal. The visual effect and the atmosphere it creates is striking and playful as we begin to doubt what is or isn't real.
However, though Jang's stylistic palette is more advanced than it has been in the past, Winter's Night doesn't offer many insights that he didn't already unearth in his previous work. The performances, particularly from Seo Young-hwa (On the Beach at Night Alone) and Yang Heung-ju (playing a similar role to the one he did in Autumn, Autumn) are compelling, even if the shots they find themselves in, no matter how lyrical, occasionally feel unnecessarily long and contrived.
There's a lot to admire in the well-performed and intriguingly staged Winter's Night as Jang appears to be growing more confident as a filmmaker, but after two films exploring nostalgic middle-aged couples taking a trip to his hometown of Chuncheon (even the Korean title of Autumn, Autumn is 'Chuncheon, Chuncheon'), let's hope he's headed somewhere different for his next film.