Drive All Night, a deep dive into Peter Hsieh’s surrealistic neo-noir film

Featured at CAAMFest 2021, Drive All Night is Peter Hsieh’s first full feature film, having mainly written theatrical plays in his past decade of work. The neo-noir thriller centers on two very different characters: a somewhat stoic middle-aged Asian man named Dave (Yutaka Takeuchi) who makes his living as a cab driver and a mysterious, spunky young brunette called Cara (Lexy Hammonds) who becomes Dave’s patron one night with a single instruction — “just drive.” Meanwhile, a hitman named Lenny (Johnny Gilligan), hired by an unnamed mob boss, is set on hunting her down.

Centered heavily around the motif of video games, Drive All Night references cult classic games, from Street Fighter to Pac-Man, and also employs many elements reminiscent of video game artistry, from the drum-heavy synthwave soundtrack to the white-on-black screens punctuating the plot line like level titles. The “MINIBOSS” arcade bar, a real business in the director’s hometown of San Jose, California, is a frequent setting in the film. This location is where we are first introduced to Lenny, who is first shown playing a game nonstop in an attempt to beat a high score. Later, it’s where Cara first invites Dave to join her on the first of many stops through the night, and the two begin bonding over games and drinks. Although we never see Lenny and Cara at the arcade at the same time, their opposition revolves largely around the concept that they are two competitors going head-to-head, both in game and in real life. 

Dark in tone and visuals, the cinematography in Drive All Night is captivating, especially the sequences where we are transported into another realm, perhaps the characters’ subconscious. In these visions, we see long hallways and empty spacious rooms, lit up by one color. In Cara’s and Lenny’s dream-like worlds, that color is a deep, bright red. In Dave’s world, he stares down a long hallway enveloped in a sad, blue hue. In the physical world, the scenes are often shot with a deep depth of field, blurring out the bright lights from the arcade machines and neon street signs into a bokeh background. Hsieh also uses effects like grain and sudden skips to mimic the appearance of the film playing on a VHS video tape. Drive All Night is full of visual patterns and symbolism, down to the details of the main characters’ attire. Cara has four different NASA and space themed patches on her leather jacket, signaling her larger-than-life ideas and demeanor. Dave wears a patch depicting an astronaut on Mars, which may be indicative of his aspirations beyond his current status quo. Lenny’s patch is of Saint Michael, an archangel warrior in the battle for good against evil, a fitting badge for a soldier.

While the visuals are beautiful and compelling to look at, the characters’ motivations are sometimes lost in the haze of artistic expression. Cara unfortunately embodies too much of the manic pixie dream girl trope. Often speaking cryptically, with platitude or just plain monologuing about video game history, she comes off as an overdone version of the aloof, cool girl hiding a nasty secret. Disappointingly, it’s never revealed what exactly her intentions or backstory is, leaving much to wonder. Perhaps on the stage, Cara’s character would’ve come off less contrived, but on screen, she is far from rooted in reality and it takes away from her believability. On the other hand, it’s easier to follow the character growth in Dave. In the beginning, we see him holding himself back from pursuing his crush, Morgan (Sarah Dumont), a waitress at the diner he and other cab drivers frequent. Yearning for more to his routine life, Dave is only galvanized to turn desires into action after his encounter with Cara and a brief romantic stint with her. 

As Hsieh explains in a blog post, one of the themes he explores in Drive All Night is reality versus unreality. From the get-go, audiences will begin questioning whether an interaction is occurring in the physical or metaphysical realm and the lines only continue to get blurred as the story progresses. The concept is further manifested in “Midnight Judy,” a singer who only performs at a small club between the hours of midnight and 1AM and avoids going out into the sun. As Dave watches Judy sing, Cara tells him of the rumor that the reason for her odd work hours is that she’s a vampire, using makeup to hide her aged face and traveling around every decade or so to preserve her public image. Whether or not the rumor is true, it’s undeniably a story that is more interesting and appealing to her audiences. Later, in one of Dave’s visions, Judy makes an appearance as her vampire self, fangs and all, and he poses a question to her, “If I’m dreaming, what happens when I wake?” 

With his abstract storytelling techniques, Hsieh evokes the surrealism of Charlie Kaufman’s films, but depending on how receptive audiences are to open-ended slow burns, they may find the film too confusing and scattered. While not hitting all the marks, Drive All Night is certainly an aspirational and aesthetically pleasing endeavor for Hsieh’s first foray into feature film.

Recommended Articles