When a couple starts talking about disappointments they’ve faced over several decades of married life, you know you’re in for a long night. Compound that with an icy landscape acting as the backdrop, and you’ve got the inverse of a story about young love blossoming in springtime.
That’s not to say that Winter’s Night is a downer. Quite the contrary — it’s a quietly contemplative 98 minutes of reflection on the troubles that come about when two people are together for the long haul. While it’s a rediscovering-our-marriage kind of film, it’s not inevitable that both parties will be entirely happy with what they find out about the other and perhaps themselves.
When we meet the couple, Hueng-ju (Yang Hueng-yu) and his wife Eun-ju (Seo Young-hwa), they’re returning from a stay on Chuncheon, a Korean island that can be reached only by ferry. It’s the place where their relationship began 30 years before when they were still in college.
“While it’s a rediscovering our marriage kind of film, it’s not inevitable that both parties will be entirely happy with what they find out…”
The tale is sandwiched between two taxi rides the couple takes, both of which are piloted by chatty drivers who act as story catalysts. Both drivers are a bit on the nosey side and try mightily to draw the reserved passengers out of their shells. But it’s clear from the start that something is awry with their relationship. The barrage of questioning, which allows them to reveal a bit of their back story, is just enough to knock things off their tenuous balance as if they’d been frozen in place and were waiting for someone to do just that.
Eun-ju discovers that she’s lost her cell phone and she insists that they return to the island to search for it. Despite Hueng-ju’s mild protests, they take the ferry back. What’s most important to her are the photos stored in it, and recovering the device becomes an obsession, not unlike the purpose of the journey itself — a mission of sorts to recover memories of what the couple had once meant to one another in the hope that they can reignite the spark.
Once back on the island, the two are stranded for the night after the last ferry leaves and are forced to stay at a bed-and-breakfast and continue their fruitless search for the lost cell phone in the morning. But a restless Hueng-ju can’t sleep, and he gets up and wanders until he ends up in an empty karaoke bar, and has a by-chance meeting with a woman who seems to be an old flame. It’s an unlikely coincidence, and may or may not be a fantasy that lives only in his head.
“…yet the performances all-around are spot on. It’s clear that the actors are in full control of the silent passages…”
Eun-ju is also restless, and she wanders through the night, finding herself at a spot where dangerously thin ice introduces a touch of drama into the plot.
Also staying on the island is a young couple, a sort of doppelganger for the older married folk. He’s in the army, as was Heung-ju when he was getting to know his bride to be, and as it turns out, other details about the two couples are remarkably similar.
As you might have gathered, the movie’s a slow-moving affair, like an iceberg drifting through frigid waters. There are long, thought-filled pauses that punctuate their conversations, yet the performances all-around are spot on. It’s clear that the actors are in full control of the silent passages, which add emotional weight and poetic depth to the dialog. The film’s rhythm is reminiscent of Yasujirō Ozu’s work, with its meditative silences and use of painted tableaus that frame certain sequences. I’m not familiar with the symbolic meanings that might be associated with the painted landscapes, but they seemed effective as visual signposts that transition our attention from one scene to another, and maybe that’s all they need to be. Equally striking is the wintry Chuncheon landscape, beautifully photographed, which adds a pristine and surreal dimension to the film. How much of the story takes place in the imaginations of the older married couple, and how much was meant to be taken at face value? It’s sometimes hard to tell, but the ambiguity is quite appealing.
Winter’s NIght (2019) Directed by Woo-jin Jang. Written by Woo-jin Jang. Starring Yang Heung-ju, Sang-hee Lee, Young-hwa Seo. Winter’s Night screened at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.
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