Increasing economic prosperity dangles tantalising rewards for the young and ambitious, but for women trapped by outdated social codes the pleasures of success are largely off limits. Director Kim Soo-yong was well known for literary adaptations and Night Journey (야행 / 夜行, Yahaeng) is, like Mist, inspired by a Kim Seung-ok novel but Kim makes a point of shifting the focus, telling the story not just of a jaded bank clerk but also of the effects of living under an authoritarian regime which demands (superficial) conformity, insists on productivity, and slowly destroys the souls of all those caught in its perilous march forwards into the corporate future.
Lee Hyeon-ju (Yoon Jeong-hee) is a woman of a certain age, unmarried, and working as a teller in a bank in Seoul. One of two “old maids” in the office, Hyeon-ju is shocked to find out that her fellow bachelorette from the adjacent desk is about to marry Mr. Choi – the couple had kept their relationship a secret but now that the engagement is public, Miss Oh will be quitting her job the day before the wedding. Alongside the joy such news surely brings, everyone seems to be making a point of being “sensitive” around Hyeon-ju, worried she will be hurt or embarrassed to learn of another woman getting married while she remains single and alone. Hyeon-ju seems more annoyed by the attempts at sympathy than anything else, but accepts her boss’ offer of a few days vacation even if she seems aware it’s mostly to get her out of the way and avoid any potential awkwardness.
Awkwardness is not something that’s going to go away though because Hyeon-ju is leading a double life in which she is actually living with bank clerk Mr. Park (Shin Seong-il) who manages the desk behind her but doesn’t want anyone at work to know about their relationship. Hyeon-ju goes home early to make dinner, but Park plays the after work drinking game, rolling in drunk and collecting the sleeping Hyeon-ju off the couch to deposit on the bed where he climbs on top of her and sates himself before rolling over in a drunken snooze. The relationship between the pair is, effectively, that of a bored middle-aged couple only they do not have the security of a marriage certificate and live in constant uncertainty.
When Hyeon-ju returns home from her brief trip back to the town where she grew up, Park does not say that he missed her, just that things have been very “inconvenient” with her away. “Convenient” is something Hyeon-ju worries defines Park’s feelings towards her, that he regards her as a part of the furniture, as something merely to serve his own desires. A rare evening at home together finds them enjoying a boxing match on TV which later leads to an amorous moment on the floor but just as he did before, Park gives up half way through to go back to the boxing, almost forgetting Hyeon-ju is even there. The other marriage at work prompts Hyeon-ju to wonder if it isn’t time they too made things official, but Park lazily brushes the question off, claiming to find marriage and all that sort of thing very boring. Spying on her partner at work, Hyeon-ju perhaps worries he plans to dump her for a match more advantageous to his career while she remains trapped in her dead-end bank teller job with a marriage her only realistic path to a successful middle age.
Hyeon-ju craves satisfaction – some real connection with Park that makes her feel alive, needed, wanted, and seen as a distinct individual. Returning to her hometown she reverts to her teenage self – putting on her high school uniform and taking her little sister down to the beach to ride her bike just as she had done. It is however not all happy memories – Hyeon-ju was drummed out of town as a hussy, the entire community know and remember her sordid past and if she were to consider an arranged marriage back home she could not expect to marry very well. Nevertheless, a now widowed son of a wealthy family takes an interest but Hyeon-ju is disappointed to realise that despite his bad boy exterior and fancy motorbike, her suitor is a small-town boy after all with a bashful attitude to love and sex which stands in contrast to Heyon-ju’s own passionate, seemingly free nature.
Freedom, however, is something she seems to have little of. We catch her catching sight of a man being handcuffed as she stands atop a busy bridge and we assume she recognises it as a echo of her own oppression but in actuality she fetishes the act of being manacled, almost compelled to place herself in a position of relative powerlessness. Later, on the same bridge, she’s dragged off by a rough man who apparently takes her to a nearby hotel and assaults her while her attempts to resist read more like playing along. Later she goes back to the same bridge, perhaps hoping to see the man again, violent acts of passion seemingly the only ones that wake her from her restlessness.
Fed up with Park, she roams the city streets alone – something respectable women rarely do as she proves when an attempt to enjoy a solo drink arouses the interest of an entire room filled with drunk salarymen in which she is the only female. Drunk men in the street attempt to pick her up and again she seems to enjoy deflecting them, often with little more than a glare though she is mildly surprised when one of them turns out to be the recently married Choi who reveals to her that he is disappointed with married life after discovering Miss Oh was not a virgin during their honeymoon.
The separation of the sexes seems to dictate that men spend the majority of their lives in the deliberately homosocial world of work with its frequent after-hours drinking sessions, while women (excluded) are left with little to occupy their time outside of becoming wives and mothers. Hyeon-ju seems to want something more, but her nighttime catwalk affords her only the mild sensation of pleasure in attracting attention solely so she can exercise the power to reject it.
Yet her attitude to men and sex is perhaps also due to having experienced betrayal and manipulation at a young age. The reason for her expulsion from her hometown was an illicit affair with her middle-aged teacher whose deflowering of her on that same beach on which she rode her bike seems to have occurred with a degree of violence which she continues to crave in all her subsequent couplings. The teacher, with whom she seems to have shared some kind of wedding ritual, was killed in Vietnam, ruining both her reputation and her future prospects through a relationship that was certainly unethical but she alone has payed the price for. He lies in the military cemetery opposite her apartment where she makes awkward, flirtatious eye contact with the soldier on guard each time she walks past.
Hyeon-ju’s hometown ruminations and odyssey through nighttime Seoul only serve to ram home to her how impotent she has been in her dull yet ordinary city life. Seoul may seem like a bustling metropolis of burgeoning modernity but it’s still full of the same tired old ideas where men are men and women are not much of anything. She fantasises about going on a crime spree with a rough looking guy from a cafe but ends up paying for his coffee before becoming the only grownup in an arcade among a group of kids in an attempt to dissolve some of her frustration. Eventually getting what she thought it was she wanted, Hyeon-ju has come too far not realise she doesn’t want it anymore. Literally railroaded into conventionality, she makes the staggering decision to just get off the train altogether, leaving her lover only the cryptic message that the holiday is now over.
Available on DVD as part of the Korean Film Archive’s Kim Soo-yong box set. Also available to stream for free via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.