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Year: 2018
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Kim Mooyoung
Screenplay: Kim Mooyoung
Cinematography: Kim Boram
Cast: Song Jae-Ryong, Ji Daehan, Jung Ahmi, Kangyong-Gu
Runtime: 110 min
Trailer: N/a

Seen at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival, which I had the fortune to attend with a filmmaker’s festival pass. Belately, I will be posting reviews of some the twenty-something films I watched.

Kim Mooyong’s night light is a wondrous and contemplative film in which Hee-tae (Song Jae-Ryong), a terminally ill and long-divorced man, meets his pre-teen son Min-sang for the first time as the boy comes to spend a few days with his father somewhere in the countryside. However, it is not just the ‘countryside’ as Hee-tae literally lives in a hut in the mountains, with no electricity, phone signal (unless you make an arduous climb to another mountain’s peak) or any other modern day conveniences.

night light is divided into two parts, winter and summer. The story begins in the cold and dark season, when a very ill Hee-tae is all alone (except for a dog) in his hut, enduring harshest conditions, yet thanks to his extensive knowledge of the land is able to survive. Still, one wonders: What keeps him there? Why does he not abandon the virtually uninhabitable rural place for the comfort of the closest town, at least in the wintertime? Why the struggle to collect water from the frozen river, forage mushrooms in the woods and light a fire to nevertheless lie shivering under covers all night long?

Summer follows winter and with it comes Min-sang. Although the low light and snow of the winter have gone, the colours remain bleak. Indeed, the entire film is mono-tone, always shot beautifully yet as if in black and white, with never seemingly more than three muted colours appearing in any frame.

For a city boy, Min-sang is surprisingly adaptable to the simple environment. He speaks little and complains even less, playing games on his phone until the battery runs out, at which point he searches, unsuccessfully, for an electricity outlet. Still, he quietly accepts this reality and watches Hee-tae go about the daily duties essential for survival. There is clearly some sense of curiosity present, yet also shyness, as he hesitates to join even when invited by his father. The pair exchanges few words between them, the longest conversation perhaps being when Hee-tae tells Min-sang the legend of a herb collector ghost that haunts the forest, a tale that –  with a sick child – mirrors Hee-tae and Min-sang’s own situation in a way.

While it appears that Hee-tae struggles to survive in the remoteness, later it becomes clear that it is this place, that mays seem harsh and unsuited to humans in most of our eyes, is not what burdens him, but precisely what allows him to live. Equally, while the father-son reunion is not exactly boisterous – Min-sang refers to Hee-tae as ajusshi throughout – over time a similarity in their personalities emerges and binds them, with cough drops, though clearly useless for curing Hee-tae’s illness, expressing the unvoiced feelings of the child.

night light is slow-paced and its limited plot only portrays a reality that is far removed from our own. It inspires many questions – some for ourselves – and is expectedly open-ended. It is not a film that will find a big audience, not even on the film festival circuit, yet those who do not mind long silences, shots of lonesome landscape sceneries and a quietly meditative story will find something worthwhile in night light – I certainly did.

Rating: 7.5/10

Overall Verdict: 

Though the film will likely find few viewers – even on the film festival circuit – those amenable to a both a quiet story and visuals in a time of excessively fast-paced living may well find some worthwhile moments of reflection in this gentle father-son reunion.

Bonus Bits:

  • Alternative reviews: I was only able to find one from Screendaily.
  • So far, the film has only had screenings at the Busan International Film Festival and the Seoul Independent Film Festival, where it won the Independent Crew award.