Night Voyage tells the story of Lee Hyun-ju (Yoon Jeong-hee) as she searches for a way out of her male dependency cycle. Through memories and imagination, we can see Hyun-ju's first love who was one of her teachers in her hometown and we can also see her currently living in secret with one of her superiors at the bank where she works. Hyun-ju is haunted by the memory of her first love, and while we are told that it was a scandalous relationship (so much so that Hyun-ju had to leave town), it seems to have been more fulfilling. And, after his death in Vietnam Hyun-ju seems intent on replacing the feelings she once held for her older teacher.
Night Voyage opens at the bank where Hyun-ju works and we learn that she is about to go on vacation and that two of her colleagues are to be married that weekend. We also learn that Hyun-ju secretly lives with her boyfriend, Park, who is another employee at the bank. These two contrasting images set up the conflict within Hyun-ju. She seems to desperately want the security and satisfaction that comes from a relationship with a man, but her situation is far from ideal. The rest of the film follows Hyun-ju to her hometown and back while she is on vacation, and through the memories and illusions of her past we see her struggle to find her own identity.
Throughout the film Hyun-ju is constantly badgered by men on the street and in bars, and is even handcuffed and raped at one point. The night she is raped she does not come home, which creates a point of anxiety in her boyfriend eventually pushing him to move forward with marriage. He takes Hyun-ju and forcibly puts her in a taxi and tells her they will go to her hometown to discuss marriage with her mother, but on the train ride he falls asleep and Hyun-ju silently exits the train and returns to Seoul alone. The following day when both are at work, she hands Park a note that simply says "the vacation is over" (휴가는 끝났어요), signifying her break from the men in her life and away from her own dependence on them. However, as the film ends with her visit to the national cemetery to once again see the grave of her first love, we must wonder to what extent she is able to escape this dependency.
One reason this films works so well is that it does not try to paint the characters in extreme lights. Hyun-ju is certainly the sympathetic character, but screenwriter Kim Seung-ok also shows how her own complicit behavior lends itself to her situation. When she visits her hometown, she is encouraged to meet another man in the town whose wife had died. Since it is typically quite difficult for widows or widowers to remarry in Korea, this man felt that he could at least have a chance with Hyun-ju since her reputation was ruined after the town discovered her affair with her teacher. While on their date, it is Hyun-ju and not the widower who is much more forward with sexual advances. This is particularly highlighted when he shows her a motel he owns prompting Hyun-ju to make suggestive glances toward him and the motel, to which he rebuffs by suggesting they eat dinner.
Also, Hyun-ju is constantly hounded by men, but in some ways she seems to enjoy the attention. While she ignores most of the advances, she does not seem to be bothered by them. Perhaps it is such a common occurrence that she has become desensitized, but in Yoon Jeong-hee's portrayal, Hyun-ju seems to enjoy the attention (at least sometimes). More than that, Hyun-ju also puts herself in situations in which confrontations would be more likely. At one point in the movie, she goes to a bar alone. The bar is filled with men eating and drinking in a rather barbaric fashion. While it does not take long for us to see the disgust in Hyun-ju's face, we still cannot escape the fact that she went there voluntarily and that she would have known how strange a sight it would have been for a young, beautiful woman to be drinking alone in a bar filled with men. So, when the men finally notice her and start yelling toward her, it is easy for our sympathies lie elsewhere.
Actress Yoon Jeong-hee plays this part with careful subtlety by showing us the contrasting elements in Hyun-ju's character. She does not seem to know what she wants or what would be in her best interests, and while she participates in the creation of her own misery, Yoon plays the character to a point in which we can still understand Hyun-ju and her own competing desires.
EVIL AHJEOSSI THEME
While the "evil ahjeossi" theme, in which the pitfalls of Korean society are blamed primarily on the drinking and womanizing men of Korea, is prominent in Night Voyage it is shown with slightly more complexity than in many other films. As in the bar scene described earlier, there is no mistaking the antagonist; however, as also mentioned Hyun-ju voluntarily entered this space.
We can view the rape scene as a more straightforward embodiment of the evil ahjeossi as she is handcuffed on the street and taken to a private room.
We must also look at Hyun-ju's boyfriend. Ultimately, the portrayal of her boyfriend, Park, is typically not one of a loving, caring man. He refuses to publicly acknowledge Hyun-ju as his girlfriend, despite saying that he is her "husband" at home. He also requires sex on demand with the ability to stop and start it depending on what is showing on television.
However, after Hyun-ju confronts him about marriage and after she does not come home one night (because she was being raped), he seems to understand the gravity of her feelings and attempts to take her to her hometown to discuss marriage. While he does this rather forcibly and without Hyun-ju's consent, it at least provides a added layer to his character giving him much more complexity than the average evil ahjeossi. Of course, it is too late and Hyun-ju has moved on, leaving him asleep on the train.
ESCAPE FROM THE CYCLE
A large portion of the film sees Hyun-ju being approached by known and unknown men. Sometimes she ignores them, sometimes she laughs with them, but she does seem to carry some genuine curiosity in each meeting. In almost every situation, she seems to understand the severity of the situation, but at the same time, without immediately dismissing them she shows her own vulnerability and desperateness to find security with a man.
Her first love with one of her former teachers and his subsequent death have left Hyun-ju scarred. Whether or not this teacher took advantage of her is not known, but through the memories and imagination of Hyun-ju we can at least see that the relationship continues to wield a great deal of power over her and in her dealings with men.
Toward the end of the film, we can see the most poignant interaction as Hyun-ju is approached by a drunk man on the street. After ignoring him she soon realizes that it is her co-worker whose wedding she just attended. At this point, Hyun-ju seems to finally realize that even in marriage, she cannot have what she wants. Soon thereafter she leaves her boyfriend and in the final scene of the film, she re-visits her first love's grave. It seems that Hyun-ju can only find what she wants through the memories and imagination of her deceased ex-boyfriend -- a man who can not hurt her.
COMPARISON TO MIST
It seems appropriate to compare the depictions of these characters with those from Mist (안개, 1967). Mist employed the same director, writer, and lead actors as Night Voyage, and similarly showed women desperate to escape their lives. However, unlike Night Voyage, Yoon Jeong-hee's character, Ha In-sok, feels as if she cannot ultimately rely on herself. She is stuck in a small town and cannot move to Seoul without the help of a man. So, when Yoon Gi-joon (Shin Seong-il) comes back home from Seoul, Ha In-sok exerts all of her energy to woo Gi-joon and convince him to bring her to Seoul upon his return. He does not, and we are left to assume that Il-sok commits suicide.
While the In-sok in Mist is a much weaker character, we can find similarities in their reliance on men. However, in the ten years between the two films, we can find a much stronger depiction in Night Voyage. Hyun-ju not only leaves her boyfriend on the train, but comes to work the next day, acknowledges him when he arrives late, and then immediately delivers the note saying they are finished. While Night Voyage does not have a happy ending, we can at least be reassured that she will not have the same fate as Mist's In-sok (at least not yet).
Thanks to the Korean Film Archive, Night Voyage can be easily watched with English or Korean subtitles on YouTube.