For almost twenty years South Korean cinema has been on a prolonged run of bleak, emotionally challenging thrillers about wounded middle-aged men seeking revenge or hiding secrets – often both. Many have seen commercial success, some internationally, but they have also created a crowded marketplace where it is increasingly difficult for a new entry to stand out from the crowd.
Seven Years of Night, a 2018 adaptation of the Jung Yoo-jung novel, absolutely looks the part and boasts several great performances. Sadly it is also haphazardly made with a woolly structure, slightly confusing flashbacks, and an overall lack of focus. The haunted aesthetic and creepy setting do their best to pull everything together, but in the end the weak story pull it all apart.
Choi Hyun-soo (Ryu Seung-ryong) is struggling financially after buying an expensive family home, and chooses to move his family out to the countryside while renting out his new house. While drunk-driving one night he accidentally kills a young girl who runs onto the road. After disposing of the body in the nearby river, a quick-stricken Hyun-soo tries to move on with his life. Meanwhile the girl’s abusive father (Jang Dong-gun) dedicates himself to finding and extracting revenge from her killer.
The key fault of Seven Years of Night is that it tells a relatively straight-forward story of guilt and revenge, yet is structured by writer/director Choo Chang-min to seem much more complicated that it is. Flashbacks come and go without easily identifying themselves as such, and some artful segues and supernatural pretensions suggest that a complex series of events are at play that are not actually present. The result is needlessly and frustratingly confusing. By the time things become clear during the second half, the film has effectively lost its audience goodwill. A weirdly early action climax also robs it of any proper suspense or excitement, since the long denouement stretches the audience’s patience to breaking point. It is a surprising failure for Choo, who’s 2012 historical film Masquerade shown much more promise.
The tone is unremittingly bleak. Neither protagonist has any sort of moral high ground, or reason for the audience to like them. The film’s setting includes a massive dam and an old flooded village underneath the river – both of which add to the story potential before being weirdly under-used. Much of the narrative takes place at night, with a distinctively sullen and oppressive tone throughout. With a stronger screenplay it could all contribute to a distinctive and powerful effect, however without that story to act as a spine all of the aesthetics simply collapse.
Ha Kyoung-ho’s cinematography is truly exemplary, as is Koo Ja-wan and Park Ji-Man’s musical score. On a technical level Seven Years of Night really does seem an impressive piece of work. It is simply such a shame that it all feels rather wasted. While a passable diversion for the Korean thriller aficionado, for the general viewer it is more likely a crushing disappointment.