Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤, Choo Chang-min, 2018)

Seven Years of Night posterThe sins of the father are visited upon the son. Cycles of abuse and fatalistic retribution are a persistent theme in Korean cinema but Choo Chang-min plunges them to new depths of tragic inevitability in his adaptation of the best selling novel by Jeong You-jeong. The biblically titled Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤, 7 Nyeonui Bam) pits two visions of failed fatherhood against each other as two broken men attempt to restore order to their lives but damn their children in the process through their own refusal to engage with past trauma.

In 2004, security guard Hyun-su (Ryu Seung-ryong) buys an apartment he can’t afford in order to placate his wife who is in constant worry over their precarious financial circumstances. Hyun-su can’t really manage the interest payments on the mortgage so the family will be renting out the fancy apartment and moving to a remote house provided by his new employers at a hydroelectric dam. On the day that he was supposed to go and check over his new accommodation, Hyun-su partied hard with his former colleagues and set off drunk, getting into an altercation with another driver on the way. Lost in a thick fog and fuzzy from the drink, he hits a little girl who ran out in the middle of the road, panics and hides her body, planning to forget any of this ever really happened.

Forgetting is not, however, something anyone is permitted to do in Choo’s world of elemental retribution in which the buried past is always destined to make its way to the surface sooner or later. The lake around the dam was once home to a village which was sunk, intact, to make way for its construction. Locals fear the water with superstitious dread, believing the lake sucks the souls of men and is polluted with something darker and older than industrial corruption. Attempting to drown the inconvenient may have its appeal, but nothing stays underwater for long and the harder you try to push it down, the faster it will rise.

Unfortunately for Hyun-su, the father of the girl he has killed, known to all as Dr. Oh (Jang Dong-gun), is not a man to be messed with. Dr. Oh, apparently an upscale dentist in the city, rules over all with a tyrannical authority and, as he owns almost all the land around here, enjoys a near feudal level of deference from the villagers. Violent and controlling, Oh’s wife, who describes him as the Devil incarnate, has recently escaped and gone into hiding leaving their small daughter Se-ryung (whose name is coincidentally the same as that of the sunken village) alone to face his wrath. Doubtless, Dr. Oh was raised with an authoritarian father of his own and is unable to see beyond himself and understand that his reign of terror prevents him from achieving the very thing he craves – the love of his wife and daughter.

Desperate for revenge, needing to prove that this is all someone else’s fault to avoid admitting that his own violence drove his wife from him and his daughter into the path of another violent man, Dr. Oh vows poetic retribution by targeting the life of Hyun-su’s innocent son, Seo-won (Go Kyung-pyo). Increasingly disturbed by his crime, Hyun-su dreams of his own father – a violent drunk with PTSD from a pointless war whose death he longed for and who he swore never to become, only to be confronted with a vision of himself as a small boy in the face of his own son watching his father strike his mother in anger. Hyun-su sees. He sees what his father passed to him and what he fears he will pass to his own son. He wants to break the curse, but doesn’t know how. 

Still, Hyun-su would drown the world to save his son even if he hates him for it. Seo-won, left with a series of dubious legacies, struggles to emerge from the shadow of his father’s crimes, is disowned by his family as the son of a murderer and cast out from regular society as one polluted by murderous blood but eventually saves himself through skills learned from a second father, himself hoping to atone for a selfish decision that led only to tragedy. Deliberately disjointed and self-reflexive, Seven Years of Night is a dark tale of supernatural dread masking a horror all too real in the impossible task of exorcising the living ghost of defeated male pride.


Seven Years of Night was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

International teaser trailer (English subtitles)

V.I.P. (브이아이피, Park Hoon-jung, 2017)

V.I.P. posterIn New World, Park Hoon-jung provided a bleak overview of creeping corruption with the absolute certainty that the forces of darkness will always win over those of the light, but with V.I.P. (브이아이피) he turns his attentions away from South Korea’s hellish gangland society to examine the effect of geopolitical concerns on the lives of ordinary citizens. He does this by positioning South Korea’s two biggest international concerns – America and The North, as twin manipulators with his home nation caught in the middle, trapped between the need to preserve allies and defend against enemies. The “enemy” here is a sociopathic serial killer allowed to get away with his crimes at home because of his elite status and then again abroad as a key informant of the American intelligence services.

Beginning at the end with a weary man accepting a gun and striding into a rundown building in Hong Kong, Park jumps back a few years to North Korea where an innocent schoolgirl is grabbed by a gang of three boys on a peaceful country road. Not only do they brutally rape and kill the girl, but they even go so far as to massacre her entire family. Police Chief Lee (Park Hee-Soon) identifies the killer as Kim Gwang-il (Lee Jong-Suk), son of a high ranking official. His boss closes the case; Gwang-il is untouchable. Lee is demoted and sent to a fertiliser plant.

A couple of years later similar crimes begin occurring in the South and maverick policeman Chae (Kim Myung-min), temporarily reinstated after being suspended for his violent ways, is handed the case after his superior apparently “commits suicide”. Like Lee, who eventually makes contact with Chae having followed his quarry to the South, Chae identifies Gwang-il and is prevented from arresting him but this time by South Korean intelligence services who were partly responsible for Gwang-il’s defection working closely with America’s CIA and the very greasy Agent Gray (Peter Stormare).

Like many Korean films of recent times the central point of concern is in the ability of the rich and powerful to do whatever they please and get away with it because their special status makes them untouchable. Park scores a double a whammy when he casts his villain both as an elitist and as a North Korean though he draws no connection between life in a brutalising regime and the desire to inflict violence.

This is a violent tale and the violence on show is sickening, often needlessly so. After showing us the aftermath of what happened to the innocent teenage girl in the prologue and then to her entire family including a five year old brother, there was really no need to go into detail but Park eventually includes a horrifying scene of Gwang-il garrotting his victim in an elegant drawing room right underneath the portraits of the Kims hanging proudly on the wall. The scene is problematic for several reasons but the biggest of them is in the depiction of the naked female body covered in blood and bruises while Park’s minions stand naked around her, pale and unstained by her blood, each of the actors carefully hiding their genitals from the camera. The victim, who has no lines other than a final plea not to kill her, is the only real female presence in the film save for one female police officer who is seen briefly and only appears to become another potential victim for Gwang-il.

The real ire is saved not for Gwang-il but for the intelligence services who lack the backbone to stop him. The Americans, or more precisely a need to placate them, are the major motivator – a fact which takes on additional irony considering Gwang-il is the North Korean threat the US is supposed to be helping to mitigate. It remains unclear why the CIA would be allowing Gwang-il free reign to live as a regular citizen given that he supposedly has important information regarding North Korean finances which is the reason the Americans are helping him defect, rather than keeping him safely contained and preventing him from committing heinous crimes all over the world which, apart from anything else, threaten to cause huge embarrassment to everyone involved. Still, Agent Gray lives up to his name in his general sleaziness and the intense implication that he is playing his own long game which may have nothing to do with country or protocol.

Park’s decision to structure the film in several chapters each with a different title card often works against him, taking the momentum of his procedural and occasionally proving confusing. Loosely, Park ties the stories of three men together – the idealistic North Korean officer who wants to see justice done, the grizzled cop with a noble heart, and the conflicted NIS officer realising the unforeseen consequences of his attempts to play politics for career advancement, but he fails to weave their fates into anything more than an extremely pessimistic exploration of hidden geopolitical oppression. Final shootout aside, V.I.P. is a grimy, politically questionable thriller which irritates in its narrative sluggishness and leaves a sour taste in the mouth in its own indifference to its villains’ crimes in favour of his V.I.P. status as the representative of an entirely different existential threat.


Screened at the London East Asia Film Festival 2017.

Original trailer (no subtitles)