Hit the Night (South Korea, 2017) [NYAFF 2018]

Independent filmmaker Jeong Ga-young’s second feature-length film is about a woman and a man having a series of conversations about sexual desires, fantasies, preferences, and relationship histories over soju and snacks in the course of one night. One learns through the first conversation why they have met up to begin with even though they do not know each other. Ga-young (Jeong) is an aspiring filmmaker in the process of writing a screenplay about love and romance, while Jin-hyeok (Park Jong-hwan) is a source of data, the stuff out of which Ga-young will write her story, if all goes well. With banter as the main draw for being so irresistibly natural in its unfurling, even in its pauses and sudden topic changes, Jeong brings together and transforms the act of conversing and filmmaking as a playful chess match, with words as the pieces. Comparisons with Hong Sang-soo and Jang Kun-Jae, both of whom make the art and seduction of conversation the crux of their narratives, will understandably arise. But Jeong’s film holds the clear distinction that it is written, acted, and directed by a woman in its exploration of pleasure and desire precisely through face-to-face verbal exchanges.

Hit the Night does exactly what its title states without much ado. The film can be divided into five simple sequences. Ga-young and Jin-hyeok walking from a distance and proceeding to an establishment for their night of copious conversing and drinking is a kind of prologue. The body of the film is of their extended conversations in one establishment and then another, split only by scenes of the two moving between the different places. This middle portion continues with a visit to a karaoke and then to Ga-young and Jin-hyeok’s presumably last encounter. A brief epilogue with Ga-young concludes the film. Through such structural and visual simplicity, Jeong has her and Park’s free-flowing, impeccably timed performances and their characters’ verbal pas de deux take center stage.

Flitting back and forth between friendly talk, subtle flirtation, and aggressive thrust-and-jab question-and-answer, Ga-young and Jin-hyeok prove to each other that they are of great stamina in the matter of talking and drinking; and more than ready to fulfill their respective roles in their agreed-upon transaction, with Ga-young dictating the discussion. Armed with a notebook and pen, Ga-young hits Jin-hyeok with ever more candid questions and subjects as the night grows. (The title can in fact also describe Ga-young, who begins the night’s discussion without any preamble by asking about masturbation.) She even starts dropping a statement here and there about her personal desire towards Jin-hyeok, which he casually deflects by circling the conversation back to the question at hand. Over time, Ga-young’s desire manifests itself more explicitly in words, which clearly gets under Jin-hyeok’s skin. Is she using her screenplay as a pretense to get Jin-hyeok or has the encounter evolved into a genuine attraction?

But this formulaic will-they-or-won’t-they that their prolonged presence in each other’s company provokes matters less than the peregrination that leads to that question. In this way, the film avoids the tiresome, navel-gazing development of a ‘I’ll never forget you but let’s go our separate ways’ one-night stand that has been done ad nauseam. Jeong seems to be after something else here, for her characters, her spectators, and herself as a writer/director. For in proving their conversational stamina mentioned above, Ga-young and Jin-hyeok also prompt the spectator to discover her own stamina in watching two humans engage with each other in a very frank manner, as their conversation in the second venue takes up a staggering fifty minutes of the film’s running time. The narrative will-they-or-won’t-they thus transforms into a spectatorial will-she-or-won’t-she continue watching! All joking aside, what makes Hit the Night absorbing viewing in the final analysis is exactly its emphasis on the process of interacting and the different, changing levels of knowing that bounce back and forth between Ga-young, Jin-hyeok, the film, and even the spectator, within and through the film.

The question of knowing/not knowing that plays out in the film is another reason why Hit the Night would invite productive comparisons with Hong Sang-soo and Jang Kun-jae, and also Jang Woo-jin. Indeed, these aforementioned independent filmmakers along with Jeong can comprise what could be paradoxically termed a ‘cinema of conversation.’ The term may sound frightfully banal and unproductive, but is apt for Hit the Night.

To elaborate: a cinema of conversation, following Hit the Night, essentially explores the amusing mystery and elusiveness of the life of a conversation between (two) people, especially one involving issues of physical contact and the slippery, shifting phenomenon that is attraction (be it intellectual, emotional, or sexual). A cinema of conversation via the collective films of Jeong, Hong, Jang Kun-jae, and Jang Woo-jin then becomes less of a paradox in the way it visually discloses social rituals, human relationships, behaviour, and even the tactile, corporeal quality of words that borders on the documentary. As strange as it may sound, though the conversations between Ga-young and Jin-hyeok hardly if ever veer into physical contact, their explicitly sexual nature make of such physical contact practically redundant.

Hit the Night is showing on July 6 at the New York Asian Film Festival.