“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
"From where did it go wrong?", he asks to his friend in agony, but he will not get the answer for that question, and neither will others, because 1) it is already too late to ask that question due to their shattered relationships beyond repair and 2) everyone, including him, is not so willing to give the parts of the answer while not completely understanding their problems much. What they have here is the failure to communicate, and that ultimately results in the irreversible tragedy at the center of melancholic South Korean movie "Bleak Night"(2010).
After introducing some unidentified high school students in the beginning, the movie observes a middle-aged man in solitary. We have no idea about what happened to him at this point, but the movie conveys the information about him succinctly through the series of shots in the absence of dialogues. He temporarily closes his shop with a personal notice, which he tears it off from the shutter on second thought. At his home in one of those bland high-rise apartment buildings in Seoul or other city nearby, he looks down at the ground below outside with bitter, wordless resignation. He goes to his son's empty room. He looks into the photos of his son at younger age in the album. Later, he visits his son's high school to meet his teacher.
His son, Gi-tae (Lee Je-hoon), committed suicide several weeks ago. Because he was mostly absent at home due to his business, the widower father, feeling responsible for his son's death, simply wants to know what drove his son to kill himself. He talks with one of Gi-tae's schoolmates, who does not tell him anything helpful. He also meets Hee-joon (Park Jung-min), one of his son's two close friends he saw from Gi-tae's photos. Hee-joon says he does not know much about what happened, because he was transferred to the other school several weeks before Gi-tae's suicide. He suggests to Gi-tae's father that he meet Dong-yoon (Seo Jun-yeong), who was a closer friend than him because they had been friends since junior high school years.
The father senses there may be something his son's schoolmates do not like to talk about. In fact, Dong-yoon did not show up in Gi-tae's funeral, and it is hard to locate him at present after the incident. We know he is right about that, because the movie goes back and forth between the present and the past through several flashbacks. In one of the earlier ones, we see one student cruelly bullied by the other student. You may wonder - is that bullied student the one who committed suicide? So, what will happen if his father knows the truth behind his son's death?
No, the story turns out to be not as simple as that, and the movie is not much of a detective story. We soon learn that bullied student is not his son and he is very much alive. After deceptively leading us to make such a false assumption for a while, the movie quickly reveals an unexpected and more interesting fact; it is Gi-tae who was a bully/alpha dog among his schoolmates. How did that possibly happen?
Through Hee-joon's and Dong-yoon's memories, we see lots of his abrasive treatments of his schoolmates. Gi-tae frequently harasses Hee-joon, and Hee-joon is sick of being Gi-tae's 'bitch' (his nickname is 'Becky', which is derived from the pronunciation of his full name Baek Hee-joon). Dong-yoon, as their mutual friend, is naturally not so pleased about what's going on between them. Dong-yoon confronts Gi-tae and asks him "Why did you do that?", but Gi-tae cannot give him a clear answer. Well, have you ever met a high school bully who can explain his mean behaviors?
The relationships between these three boys were not that bad at first. Some remote defunct train station around their neighborhood is their private place for smoking and playing baseball. They get along with each other relatively well. In one of few bright spots in the film, they decide to go to the Chinatown in Inchon together on one weekend, accompanied with three girls including Dong-yoon's girlfriend Se-jong (Lee Cho-hee), At the end of the day, they spend the night at Hee-joon's apartment while his parents go outside.
Through their friendships to be deteriorated, we observe the fragility of a small society named high school. Even he is at the top of the pecking order at school, it only takes a seemingly meaningless mutual glance between others for him to feel insecure and make hasty assumption right at the spot. Not articulate about their feelings, they are very clumsy at communicating with each other. The conversations between them are usually like this: "What's with you two?" - "It's nothing." - "Talk to me." - "Nothing. Stop worrying." - "Why can't you talk?" - "Seriously, it's nothing." Neither of them learns anything from each other.
The reasons behind Gi-tae's bullying turns out to be more complex than we thought. Behind his aggressive bravado, Gi-tae is an insecure boy who craves for the recognition from others even when he is surrounded by his entourage. He really needs his two close friends, but he does not open his heart to others while coercing the friendship onto them. When he does it, he doesn't do it in time, so his confounded friends do not understand why he tells them his reason for not wanting to take them to his barren home.
When the bond between them no longer covers the cracks in their relationship, the destructive cycle fueled by insecurity, pride, jealousy, misunderstanding, pettiness, and anger commences, where everybody is a victim as well as a perpetrator in the gray ambiguous area. Hee-joon may be the most introverted type among them, but he is capable of a heartless psychological blow more penetrating than physical one. After Gi-tae destroys his friend's private relationship, Dong-yoon throws a savage reply to his troubled friend as a retaliation; "Nothing would have gone wrong if you hadn't been here from the start."
The movie is an impressive debut from the director/writer Moon Sung-hyeon; this is his graduation project at the Korean Academy of Film Arts. Though the movie is a low-budget independent film, his talent is evident. The vague, bleak atmosphere, represented by the bland forest of the concrete apartment buildings, is maintained consistently under his steady control. His teenager characters are presented with the vivid depiction of the world inside South Korean high school, which is probably not that different from yours except several specific details such as mandatory school uniform. Their dialogues are coarse and realistic, though they are a little bit too standard as if they all got A in Korean lesson. Surrounded by subtle uneasiness, there are several powerful conversation scenes crackling with the tension beneath the mundane setting. Sometimes words are more hurtful weapon than fists because bruises in heart last longer.
Moon Sung-hyeon is also a skillful storyteller. While never confusing us, he moves back and forth effortlessly between the two plot lines with Gi-tae's death as a sort of MacGuffin to hold our attention. Although we see what happened between these boys and how their hearts were hurt, there are several things remained unanswered, and we only guess the entire picture of how their friendships were ruined.
For instance, we never learn the reason behind the incident associated with Dong-yoon's girlfriend Se-jeong. Unlike the boys in the film, Se-jeong is more open about her thoughts and feelings. There a crucial but elusive scene between her and Dong-yoon, who has recently heard some unsavory things about her. After sensing her boyfriend is not willing to talk about something, she asks him to give his watch to her. He reluctantly gives it to her, and she says she wants to have it. He asks her why, and she replies he will see her again for that. She walks away with his watch, but, then, she seems to change her mind and gives it back to him. Lee Cho-hee, the sole crucial female performer in the film, suggests many possibilities through her subtle performance. Does she know what he heard about her? Is it her gesture of letting him go? Or, was that 'rumor' just a spiteful lie from Gi-tae?
We only know what happens next puts the final wedge between the long friendship between two boys. We see that Gi-tae painfully realizes that he has screwed up everything he cares about, but we never learn about the last days of his life, and neither do Gi-tae's friends, who do not want to admit that they were somehow responsible for their friend's death. Few adult characters in the movie, including Gi-tae's father, always meander at the fringe, though they really want to know what happened.
The sense of gloomy suffocation pervades the air, and the movie does not even allow it to be diminished even at the finale, which could have been loosened by an easy catharsis. While admiring it for many reasons, some critics complained that the movie is overlong and meandering with its rather anti-climactic finale, but I think Moon Sung-hyeon made a right choice; the point of his film is not the ventilation with an answer - it is the suffocation with no solution or redemption. In spite of the melancholy never lifted from the screen, the movie cares about the characters and it allows a small moment for consolation at the finale, which is, though, it is more like mournful self-absolution in my opinion.
The actors, including Cho Seong-ha, who plays Gi-tae's father, are all believable with their low-key nuanced performances. Although the young actors playing the high school kids in the film are mostly over 20, but they are rarely awkward as ordinary South Korean high school students. As three main characters, Seo Joon-yeong, Park Jeong-min, and Lee Je-hoon (I was shocked to know that he is only one year younger than me), give the best performances in South Korean movies of this year. Lee Je-hoon, who is having a breakthrough year with this film and Korean war movie "The Front Line" (2011), is especially terrific as a tragic bully with complicated reasons. Gi-tae is unlikable, but you can't help but feel sorry for the boy who does not know how to communicate with friends more gently and thoughtfully.
Boys can be more vulnerable than girls. They can be easily hurt while afraid of showing it. They do foolish things. They can be easily angry to others. They have not learned that others can be hurt as much as them. Out of pettiness and anger, they cannot accept the apology from others even if it sincerely comes from the heart. Only after getting wiser (and older), they finally begin to grasp what they did to others, and ultimately to themselves. Sadly, for the boys in the movie, the water is already spilt, and it is too late for them now; the openhearted conversation is now only possible in their minds.
"Bleak Night" came to me as something insightful and personal. It evoked my unpleasant memories of high school years. While revisiting the film, I recalled one boy who frequently tormented me during my high school years. He must have been quite insecure or pissed off because I dared not to recognize him well with my nerdy detachment (I could see lots of myself at that time from Hee-joon). My brutal honesty was used to make many of my classmates angry a lot, and he was no exception. I remember him grabbing me, dragging me into one dormitory room, and then threatening me verbally and physically, because I publicly said I did not feel sad about him and others leaving the school. I did not give a damn about him, except being annoyed. He was more pissed off. I was being at a loss about what to do with him, maintaining confounded face. Guess who got a more stressful day.
I do not like many of my high school colleagues even at present - and I do not particularly want to go to a school reunion to meet them. However, while touching the bitter memories inside me, the film made me wonder whether I was nice to them, who might be as sensitive as the boys depicted in the film. I recently read a Salon article written by Steve Almond who had the conversation with his bully in adolescent years after long years of resentment. Their conversation on their past in the school instantly resonated with what I saw in the movie. He wrote: "Behind every bully story, I mean, there's a whole system of damage." - that's an apt description of this sad adolescent drama, one of the best South Korean movies of this year.
Sidenote: The original Korean title is "Pasuggun", which means "Catcher", which came from "The Catcher in the Rye". They were supposed to be the catcher for each other - but they failed.
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