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Black Light (Bit-Gwa Cheol)

A slippery investigation into the truth of a haunting accident, this Korean melodrama fails to provoke emotion — live from Tallinn


In the aftermath of an accident, it is human nature to want to fully understand exactly what happened. But what can you do when the key witness is in a coma, unlikely to wake up soon? This is the key issue that haunts Korean melodrama Black Light, which starts with a seemingly simple premise before adding multiple, often contradictory, layers.

Heejoo (Kim Si-eun) returns to her former home and returns to the same job she had in a factory before she got married to her late husband. She doesn’t seem to have it all together: a quiet, nervous woman, her fear of the past often leads her scurrying away from fearful situations. Then when she meets a canteen worker at the factory and the wife of the other man in the accident, Youngnam (Yum Hye-ran), she is forced to uncover the hidden secrets of the car crash which killed her husband.

Black Light gets more interesting as it goes along — indicting the factory and the local police force, as well as multiple supporting players, in what may or may not have happened. By the end, it seems like nearly everyone in the town has a part in what went on, making the film a complicated exploration of how the truth can be a slippery beast. Yet, appearing to have more perspectives on the central death than all three seasons of Twin Peaks, this multifaceted approach is both the film’s strongest and weakest points.

How many key reveals should a drama have? Conventional screenwriting suggests that you should save your reveal for near the end, thus creating a clever twist that makes you rethink what has come before. Black Light rips up conventional wisdom, delivering more “a-ha” moments than a season’s worth of Poirot. But when the revelations seem to go in multiple directions, it blurs both women’s perspectives together to create a blurry picture of what the truth really is.

The problem with this technique is that, while interesting from an academic standpoint, it ends up stripping these reveals from having any emotional power. Repetitious to a fault, it deadens the plot instead of enriching it. This is reflected in the style of the film too, with many confrontations shot in almost exactly the same way. Characters meet and are framed in a traditional two-camera shot. Then near the end of the scene, cinematographer Cho Wangseob cuts to a wide medium shot, with both characters balanced on either side of the frame. The style functions as a metaphor for the movie, which offers up both perspectives at multiple times before mashing them together.

I found myself pulled towards and away the film throughout its 107-minute runtime. On the one hand it’s a clever investigation of what the “truth” could be, told by unreliable, knotty protagonists, and handsomely mounted and acted. On the other, its repetitious and often melodramatic tone left me with little investment in what was going on. Evoking Burning in its enigmatic approach, it ultimately lacks that film’s haunting and imperceptible tension.

Black Light plays as part of the First Feature competition at Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 13th to 29th November.

By Redmond Bacon - 17-11-2020

Redmond’s tastes are pretty diverse – from the neglected cop classic Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovsky,1989) the lesbian drama Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) to Scorsese’s best film:...

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