One of the most intriguing – and strangely unheralded – events at this year’s LA Film Festival was the North American premiere of South Korean film critic Jung Sung-il’s staggering debut, Café Noir. It’s staggering in part because it runs over three hours, is filled with long takes and defiantly devoid of action, yet thought-out to the minutest degree. There were plenty of walkouts but even in the emptiest-seeming shots, there’s something that nags at the interest, a suspicion that Jung will come up with something really arresting. That happens, as it turns out, in the quietest moments, and perseverance and attention are rewarded by a rich and deceptively detailed tapestry of a film…

Jung is unabashed in his admiration for and appreciation of his sources: the film takes the form of a double adaptation, prefaced by a title “Essentials of World Literature for Boys and Girls,” and following an ironical neon fast food blessing, launches into a loose adaptation of Goethe’s Young Werther. It’s Christmas Eve in Soeul, a chilly emotional (and implied political) climate, and Young-Soo (Shin Ha-gyun - Thirst, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance) is a music teacher having an affair with the mother of one of his students, who declares mantra-like “we can’t go on like this.”

Ever so slowly, he fails to kill her husband and fails to win her back, retreating to the purgatory of the subway before launching himself from a ferry. However that’s not the end of him; a subaqueous L’Atalante vision in a wedding dress informs him he can expect nothing but torment from love and (following the perfect halfway placement of the credits as he wanders through a bookstore and peruses the two source novels) he emerges to become the protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights. He meets a young woman awaiting the return of her lover and she tells him the story of how they parted a year previously. He is meant to be lending a brotherly ear, but naturally, over the course of four nights’ waiting, he falls in love, only to see his passion dashed once again.

It’s a wonderful story, and an audacious choice for adaptation given that its previously been handled (in neither instance quite successfully) by both Visconti and Bresson (Ophuls’ Werther is a damp squib). Jung doesn’t quite conjure it either, the true anguish of the conclusion dimmed by our having been told so repeatedly of the impermanence and unreliability of love, that the outcome seems more resignedly inevitable than heart-breakingly tragic.

This pessimism is most explicit in the film’s treatment of love, but takes  in both religion (God is cruel), from the three wise men who sit outside a whorehouse to the school girl’s passion play without a resurrection (to allow those who believe and those who do not to decide on their own ending), to a fascination with the fabric of the city itself. The film functions as a portrait of the metropolis, with long takes of modern facades and lengthy road journeys intended to function as emblematic of the empty modernity of contemporary Korean life. The director’s note for the press release, in the form of a poem, ends “The movie’s ‘dead time’ is the real time of Korea, the time in which our despair dwells”. With such an aesthetic, conjuring an atmosphere of ersatz soullessness risks being self-defeating, but equally there are of course moments that reach for the sublime, and some come close. An impromptu dance sequence makes up for in intensity what it lacks in dynamism or originality; and the long (never easy) backstory of White Nights is delivered in one long (and certainly not easy) almost unbroken take by Jung Yu-mi. But it is one of those scenes where you must know Korean considerably better than I do to judge its effectiveness. Others do not work, most frequently because of the accompanying music – or more properly, arrangements, since we are talking here of Bach, Donizetti and others – that falls short of the intended transcendence, or because of the aforementioned soullessness. In addition, much of the effectiveness of this sort of slow cinema lies in the quality of the image; the visual aesthetic is closely controlled, but despite some elegantly gliding camerawork, the compositions are less often arresting than merely interesting; it’s also worth adding that the perennially-hyped Red camera shows itself to be, without the most careful handling, still prone to the nasty hard edges and blown-out highlights endemic to digital video.

Jung was introduced (in absentia) as a filmmaker with a lot to say. That is not quite true: what he has to say is that love sucks and is quite a lot like religion, and that this may be reflective of, or even caused by, the empty artificiality of modern Korea. But he has a wealth of interesting ways in which to say it and boundless ambition; it’s a bold – and wonderful – risk he takes in making a film such as this, as his first or any other. Whilst self-indulgence hovers close at hand, it should nonetheless prove to be one for the ages: a career to watch has begun.

Rating: 8.6/10

Are you interested in seeing Cafe Noir?