Here we are at the point in the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) where the quirky independent South Korean movies pop up. Hit the Night and Microhabitat are both movies written and directed by women at the start of their careers, offering a particular take on life on contemporary Korea. I often find these more interesting than the big mainstream movies. These two also feel like the types of arthouse movies you might expect from France.
Hit the Night
Jeong Ga-Young not only wrote and directed Hit the Night, but stars in it as well. She plays a filmmaker interviewing an actor for a possible role in a movie she’s supposed to be making. She asks him uncomfortably frank questions about his sex life, and they get into a conversation about dating and sex and intimacy. After they’ve had more and more booze he loses any hesitation about answering her questions and even throws some back at her. He doesn’t stop getting more and more perplexed by her questions, though. Is she really researching her movie, or is this an excuse for her to convince him to sleep with her despite his protestations that he has a girlfriend?
This is one of those small indie movies where characters just hang out and talk. Some people might hate those types of movies, and I don’t blame them. Your tolerance may vary. This is the South Korean equivalent of the Mumblecore movies that were a thing in US indie cinema years ago, though it’s more precise in its aim.
Some critics have said that this is also a female corrective to the movies of Han Sang-Soo, whose talky movies are often about men talking to and about women as they try to deal with their hapless sexual and romantic attractions towards them. The movie is about the director and actor talking about their attitudes toward life, sex, romance, and the movies with an underlying sexual tension, and it’s intensely personal. Who would have expected that the legacy of French director Erich Rohmer would be continued in South Korea?
Microhabitat is Jeon Go-Woon’s debut feature, a quietly comic and poignant fable about Miso, a woman who lives hand-to-mouth as a part-time housekeeper who barely makes enough to live. Her threadbare studio flat has no heating, and it gets so cold in winter that her equally poor boyfriend suggests they wait ’til spring to have sex.
When her rent goes up and the government raises the price of cigarettes, she calculates how much of her essentials she can cut to continue to afford what she loves most: cigarettes and whisky. She decides to go without rent and moves out, seeking the friends she was in a rock band with back in university to stay with while she tries to sort out her situation. They’ve all settled into one form of “normal” life or another: the one who’s now a highly paid executive and has no time for anything else anymore; the keyboardist who is now a housewife with a son and parents who drive her crazy; the drummer who thought he was sorted with a wife and job; the singer who has moved back in with his parents; the former guitarist who married a rich businessman and had a baby.
All of these friends are frustrated and unhappy with their lives, in contrast to Miso, who has no interest in settling down or marrying. The executive has no time in her life for anything but work now. The keyboardist is deeply frustrated and unhappy with her useless husband, nagging parents, and too-small flat. The drummer is going through a divorce and is horribly depressed. The singer is content to settle for the security of living with his parents, who are desperate for him to marry. They see Miso as a prospective bride, to the point of nearly taking her prisoner in their house in the funniest and most surreal segment in the movie. The guitarist is beset by insecurities about holding onto the rich, materialistic life she’s acquired with her husband. Miso can’t stay with any of them for long because they’ve changed and she hasn’t, which baffles some of them and enrages the others.
Smoking to Miso is communion with friends. It’s telling that the ones who won’t let her stay are the ones who have given up smoking. Smoking and whisky become metaphors for ideals, so it’s no surprise that Miso absolutely refuses to give those up, no matter how hard her life becomes. This makes her plight increasingly poignant as the demands of modern living make it increasingly untenable for her to actually live. She refuses to take charity money and always gives something in return, whether it’s cleaning their houses or cooking meals. She’s kinder and purer than the other characters and hasn’t lost sight of herself.
The movie does not judge her decisions as immature or crazy but with respect for her integrity. She’s a kind of Chaotic Neutral element that comes back into their lives and exposes their lost dreams and unhappiness. This movie asks the big question: what makes life better, to have wealth but no happiness or to be poor but still know joy? The movie quietly points out social issues like the lack of jobs, affordable housing, and prospects for college graduates.
The Korean title for the movie means “A Little Princess”, which might more accurately reflect the movie’s intentions — it’s not a documentary but a melancholy fairy tale whose heroine drifts through the city and people’s lives like a strange angel not long for this world.