A small family contends with the persistent unfairness of contemporary Korean society in Yoon Seo-jin’s slow burn indie drama, Chorokbam (초록밤). Translated literally, the title means “green night”, the family often bathed in a neon green that seems to reflect their sense of despair and anguish unable to envisage much of a future for themselves in a world ruled by greed and envy which leaves them little option other than to become insensitive to the joy and pain of others.
As the film opens, the nightwatchman patriarch is busy giving out parking tickets when he suddenly spots a cat hanging from from a children’s climbing frame. Shocked and feeling pity for the small creature, he cuts it down and buries it by the green light of the moon but finds little sympathy when relating his traumatic discovery to his wife. The nightwatchman’s wife is preoccupied with more practical affairs, irritated by her husband’s annoying habits such as leaving the bathroom door open and not washing his hands after finishing his business, while their grown-up son Won-hyung wants to get married but can’t afford a place to live on his salary as a care worker. When it comes to that, they’re soon to be turfed out themselves because their landlord wants to tear the building down.
Matters come to a head when the grandfather passes away, the nightwatchman’s sisters getting into an actual physical altercation at the wake while loudly complaining about who did or didn’t pay for the funeral. Totting up the condolence money they accuse supposedly cheapskate guests of freeloading, implying they only turned up for a free meal that they have in a sense stolen. Meanwhile, the sisters also want to ensure that their father’s house is sold quickly so they can divvy up the inheritance. What they realise, however, is that there were things about their father’s life they may not have known which raise questions about moral responsibility when it comes to dealing with the affairs of someone who has died.
The nightwatchman comes to identify with the strangled cat, though the spectre of hanging seems to loom over the rest of the picture with even the nightwatchman’s wife eventually discovering the body of someone whose death she may unwittingly have contributed to. She complains about her husband’s fecklessness, that he, who barely talks at all, makes her deal with anything unpleasant including his hotheaded sisters. She tells him that she regrets marrying into his “horrible” family and is thoroughly sick of dealing with them only to be pursued by a wounded dog with whom she perhaps also identifies. The nightwatchman’s wife is often excluded from the frame, a disembodied voice from behind a wall as she is as she feeds her husband breakfast and again when he asks her to deal with an emotionally difficult situation in a cafe. The nightwatchman simply smokes by a widow as if physically removing himself from the scene.
Won-hyung meanwhile becomes increasingly resentful with his friends’ wedding coming up, unable to escape the feeling of belittlement in being unable to marry or move forward with his life with little prospect that anything will change. Yoon frames the family’s dilemmas with a deadpan realism, bathing the everyday grimness of their lives in an putrescent green that suggests there may be no escape from this maddening society where all relationships are built on transaction. The family are doing their best but are also estranged from each other, the nightwatchman barely speaking while his wife is left to deal with the uncertainty of their lives alone. She even laments they’ll likely not see the sisters again until the next person dies because their familial connection is essentially hollow and valueless in a society ruled by money.
The nightwatchman comes to think of himself as a strangled cat, finding himself facing a noose during a poetic dream sequence that encourages him to think of suicide as the only possible escape from his impossible situation. Bleak in the extreme, Kim’s slow burn drama paints an unflattering portrait of the contemporary society as one in which all hope has long been lost leaving only dread and despair in its wake.
Chorokbam screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)