INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL PREMIERE
In Competition for the White Mulberry Award for First Time Director
The Night Owl
South Korea, 2022, 118’, Korean
Directed by: An Tae-jin
Screenplay: Hyun Eun-mi, An Tae-jin
Photography (color): Kim Tae-kyeong
Editing: Kim Sun-min
Production Design: Lee Ha-jun
Music: Hwang Sang-jun
Producers: Baek Chang-joo, Baek Yeon-ja, Lee Gang-jin
Cast: Ryu Jun-yeol (Gyeong-su), Yoo Hai-jin (King Injo), Choi Moo-sung (Royal Physician Lee Hyeong-ik), Cho Seong-ha (Premier Choi), Ahn Eun-jin (Soyong), Park Myeong-hoon (Man-sik)
Date of First Release in Territory: November 23rd, 2022
The year is 1645, and King Injo sits on the throne. His reign has been anything but smooth, having lived through a major rebellion and two invasions (viewers who have watched Squid Game director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s The Fortress, in which the Korean king is forced to prostrate himself before the Qing Emperor, will know the backdrop to this story). Now his son the Crown Prince Sohyeon is set to return to Korea after living 8 years as a hostage with the Qing. But Injo is skeptical about his son’s return; he suspects that in the intervening years, his son’s loyalties may have turned.
Meanwhile Gyeong-su, a gifted acupuncturist from a rural village, has been chosen to live in the palace and serve the royal family. Gyeong-su is blind, or at least everyone assumes that he is. In fact, he has a condition known as hemeralopia (day blindness), in which he is completely unable to see in daylight, but able to make out a fair amount in the darkness. Life experience has taught him that this condition makes people suspicious, and it is better to pretend to be fully blind.
With his superior acupuncture technique and keen understanding of people, Gyeong-su adjusts well to his new job. He even begins to open up to the charismatic Prince Sohyeon. But then Gyeong-su witnesses a crime that he should never have seen. For his own protection he must remain silent, but what he knows is too explosive to keep to himself.
The Night Owl surprised viewers when it opened in November 2022. Although it looks in some ways like a typical palace-set historical drama, it is shot with a more contemporary vibe, like a thriller. Gyeong-su’s visual impairment provided an opportunity for the filmmakers to create a very distinctive look for the night scenes, and in general, this is a beautifully-shot work. More than anything, the story is gripping and well-told. Gyeong-su is a very likeable and capable protagonist, caught in a challenging and dangerous situation. First-time director An Tae-jin capably squeezes every last bit of drama out of this explosive setup. In a year when mid-sized films suffered horribly at the box office, The Night Owl rode positive word of mouth to sell 3.3 million tickets. In that sense, this film was a rare beacon of optimism for Korean cinema in 2022.
Finally, no review of The Night Owl can pass without some appreciation for what Yoo Hai-jin was able to achieve in his depiction of King Injo. In Korea’s film and TV industries, there are certain kind of actors who are given the opportunity to play kings. Yoo Hai-jin is not of that type. His acting skills are often praised, and yet he is usually cast in comic roles. When he takes on more serious dramatic films, he often plays relatable characters who elicit our sympathy in some way. So Director An deserves praise for recognizing that Yoo is more than capable of playing a character who evokes grandeur, power and cruelty in equal measure. Despite the fact that we know him so well, Yoo’s performance was one of the acting discoveries of 2022.
An Tae-jin served as the assistant director on Lee Joon-ik’s blockbuster hit King and the Clown (2005). While continuing to pursue opportunities to make his debut, he was presented with the project The Night Owl, after which he spent three years refining the screenplay. The film premiered in late 2022 and was a solid word-of-mouth hit with 3.3 million tickets sold. He also won the Best New Director award at the 2023 Directors’ Choice Awards.
2022 – The Night Owl