Of all the relationships portrayed in Night Flight (Ya-gan-bi-haeng), LeeSong Hee-il’s fourth feature film, the budding romance between Yong-ju and Gi-wong is perhaps the least interesting. Both are complex, compelling characters in their own right, but given just how much is going on in this Korean drama their early arguments over a stolen bike are almost incidental. Luckily, this is much more than a simple love story.
Night Flight is really about modern-day Seoul, or at least modern-day Seoul through the eyes of a closeted schoolboy and his disenfranchised friends. Social mores and political hierarchies play out between classes, with teachers cementing the idea that the differences between grades directly reflect the positions they will hold later in life. It’s an unforgiving environment, particularly for the underprivileged, the unintelligent and the unconventional.
Yong-ju finds refuge at home with his unusually liberal mother, and at Night Flight, an abandoned gay bar where he meets up with a more extrovert student from another school. These scenes are particularly poignant, and also provide a welcome respite from the overwhelming prejudice faced by Yong-ju in the wider world. There is a delicate beauty to the cinematography throughout, even as things turn ugly, both in the classroom and beneath an overpass where much of the film takes place.
Attractive, ambitious and deeply affecting, Night Flight is the sort of unexpected treat that film festivals thrive on. You do suspect, however, that you might be missing something in translation; that without a better understanding of the socio-political context some of the finer details might be passing you by. That said, the film still lands a pretty powerful punch whether you follow every exchange or not.