Scattered night still 2Familial collapse has become a major theme in recent Korean indie cinema. Caught in a moment of societal flux, the family itself has come in for question with the young in particular looking for new models and new ways forward. Where Yoon Ga-eun’s The House of Us found an anxious little girl alternately trying to force her warring parents back together and forming a new family of her own as a maternal figure to two neglected sisters, Kim Sol & Lee Jihyoung’s Scattered Night (흩어진 밤, Heuteojin Bam) finds another little girl processing familial failures and pondering her own place in the world unanchored from parental security.

9-year-old Su-min (Moon Seung-a) hasn’t seen her dad in a month, so she’s put out that all he’s done while he’s been home is show some people round their apartment and complain it isn’t clean enough. Unlike her slightly more savvy brother Jin-ho (Choi Junwoo), Su-min hasn’t quite understood that her parents are splitting up and that’s why her dad doesn’t live with them anymore. Perhaps jumping the gun, the parents sit the kids down and try to explain that they’re not getting “divorced” and will still be a “family”, but that mum Yoon-hee (Kim Hyeyoung) and dad Seung-won (Lim Hojun) can’t live together anymore. Quite reasonably asking what’s going to happen to them, the kids get no real reply. Su-min quickly realises that she will definitely be separated from one of her parents, but begins to worry that she may also lose her brother if it ends up that mum and dad are taking one child each.

Already somewhat anxious, Su-min seems to feel disconnected from her mum who is at best undemonstrative, sometimes perhaps resentful of her role as a wife and mother and everything she has been asked to sacrifice in order to fulfil it. Declaring herself bored at home and throwing herself into her career as a teacher at a cram school, Yoon-hee has little time for her daughter but bonds with her son through their shared interest in studying. Too young to join in, Su-min too tries picking up some books to spend “quality time” with her mother only to be dismissed once again and left feeling as if she’s failed some sort of test.

While Su-min agonises over a hypothetical choice of which parent might suit her best, her brother Jin-ho isn’t sure he wants very much to do with the family at all, already thinking of applying to a prestigious grammar school chiefly because it has a dormitory. He skips out on a family picnic to “study” on his own at home, but pushed for an answer always chooses his mother with whom he seems to share a greater affinity. Jin-ho’s clear taking of a side further unsettles his sister who wonders if that means that she will essentially be left with no choice other than to go with her father. Working out all the potential combinations, Su-min asks her brother which he thinks is most likely and gets the response that they will probably both stay with their mother because she will definitely want to stay with them, but remains unconvinced that is really the case. Looking for reassurance, she tells her mum that she’s worried she’ll simply disappear once they sell the apartment, but her mother offers no reply.

Literally displaced in her home environment, Su-min witnesses two children around her own age sitting cheerfully at her family table as if they already owned the place. When she hears her mother tell an estate agent she’s looking for somewhere with two rooms (though preferably one big enough to be divided in two) it fuels her anxiety that she’s being rejected, that her mother only wants one of them and it isn’t her. Meanwhile, her father remains distant, largely refusing to discuss anything but conceding that Su-min ought to have a say in her future and promising to respect her decision.

The sorry truth seems to be that neither parent really wants the kids. Failing to process the end of their marriage, they begin to view the last 15 or so years as a huge mistaken life choice, an embarrassing failure of which the kids are the most obvious proof. They want to start again, but the kids are in the way. Jin-ho overhears his father say that it would have been better if they’d never had him, while his mum regrets that they ever got together in the first place. Despite teaching the children that it’s bad to lie, they make them keep up the pretence of happy families when horrible grandma comes to visit from the US to avoid the disgrace of admitting the marriage has failed.

Neatly mirroring Su-min’s anxiety, Yoon-hee tells grandma that it’s a shame she doesn’t live closer so they could see each other more often, but of course she doesn’t really mean it. Grandma talks up her own faults and professes regret that Yoon-hee couldn’t study abroad because she had to look after her siblings after her father died, but she does so largely as a way of running her daughter down. In any other situation the fact that grandma lives abroad, separated from her daughter by oceans, ought to give Su-min reassurance that familial bonds can overcome geography but the relationship is so obviously toxic as to provide no comfort at all.

Su-min wants agency over her future, to be acknowledged and have some kind of control, but asking her to make such an emotionally difficult decision is an awfully cruel burden to place on a child and one that she is ultimately unwilling to carry. Though the siblings are able to patch up a kind of solidarity, pledging to minimise the “awkwardness” that may arise between them if they are only to see each other once a week, it’s clear that an unscalable wall exists between the generations and the “family” cannot ever be repaired. Su-min and her brother will have to find their own way out of the dark, while their parents remain hopelessly lost looking for the path back to possibility.

Scattered Night was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Short clip (English subtitles)

Interview with the directors from Jeonju International Film Festival (English subtitles)

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