The 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)