“Grass,” Reviewed: Hong Sang-soo Listens in on Painful Confessions at a Coffee Shop
“Grass,” the new movie by the South Korean director Hong Sang-soo (which opens Friday), is centered on a café on a cobblestoned alley off another alley off a street, with inviting flowerpots outside. Known for its piped-in classical music, it’s a clean, well-lighted place, plainly and sparely decorated with bric-a-brac and even an 8-mm. home-movie projector. It looks like an ordinary café but it’s no ordinary café; it’s the desolation café, the end of the line for people at the end of their rope. A young woman and a young man are there, facing each other at a table across which she flings recriminations, blaming him for the death of another woman. What’s more, while she’s grieving and suffering, the man across the table seems to be doing well: his career is thriving; he’s making money. As she’s still screaming at him, he gets up and walks out.
There’s another young woman in the café, too; she’s not named in the film, but the film’s end credits identify her as Areum, and she’s played by Kim Min-hee, an actress who has been in six of Hong’s films. (She also played a character by the same name in his film “The Day After,” from 2017.) Their affair and ongoing relationship have been major tabloid fodder in South Korea. Here, she plays a self-described eavesdropper, who sits in the café with a laptop computer. She both types out what she hears, as a kind of diary, and adds to it her own reflections on the events and the characters she observes—in effect, the screenplay for “Grass,” the drama of which is its own composition.
There are four other couples, or, rather, woman-man pairs, in “Grass,” whose lives gravitate, temporarily, around the café and become fodder for Areum’s observations. Hong presents their comings and goings, and the sharply confrontational, painfully confessional discussions that ensue while they’re there, in a style that’s among the most original in the current cinema. The movie is in a plain, silken black-and-white; brisk panning shots follow characters in and out—and dart between them when they’re sitting together. Long takes of their discussion are parsed and punctuated, pressurized and depressurized, by the camera swinging from one to the other and zooming in and out of closeups, with Hong’s brusquely assertive camera moves responding to and challenging (at the risk of spoiling) the actors’ extended performances. This precise and highly constructed composition has the impulsiveness and the daring of improvisation—as if the screen were a white page on which Hong were sketching in black ink with no chance of erasures or corrections. (It’s a method that allows Hong to move fast—he’s a remarkably prolific filmmaker, who often makes two or three movies a year.)
In “Grass,” Hong deploys his taut and rarefied style to dramatize the passion of observation itself. The tension of the action is, in a physical sense, low-risk cinema, inasmuch as there are no battle scenes to choreograph, no stunts to stage, no crowd scenes to coördinate—it’s a movie in which people walk, sit, and talk. The tension is in the subjects of their talk, the agonized and high-stress, high-stakes matters that they lay bare. There are two actors who frequent the café, one of whom attempted to kill himself after a failed romance and is abandoning the stage, another who, tiring of the stage and dreaming of directing a movie, wants to move in with a younger woman for the sole purpose of observing the details of her private life and nourishing his screenplay with them. There’s a man who blames a woman for the suicide of his beloved professor in the wake of a romantic scandal; and there’s Areum’s own brother and his fiancée, whose relationship she derides irrepressibly; and there’s a man and a woman doing their own version of playacting in the alley, as they photograph each other, day and night, in the traditional Korean clothing called hanbok.
Which is to say that “Grass” has as much drama packed into its sixty-eight-minute span as one might find in a miniseries, and it makes that packing in its very subject. Hong intertwines these anguished anecdotes with a finely spun narrative architecture—which contrasts daringly, even giddily, with the simplicity of the sequences that it comprises. The playful elegance of the narrative design makes it seem almost like a high-level goof, but there’s nothing goofy about the emotions that Hong brings to light. The method reminds me of a remark from a published discussion, in 1984, between Jean-Luc Godard and Maurice Pialat, in which Pialat complained that it’s impossible for him to get the funding to make a film about the Battle of Waterloo, and Godard responded, “You have another film that’s possible, making a closeup of Fabrice recounting Waterloo.” (The allusion is to the protagonist of Stendhal’s novel “The Charterhouse of Parma,” who takes part in that battle.) But, in “Grass,” the closeups are parts of duets—the movie’s implicit subject is partnership, both personal and artistic. Even as Hong shows the emotional tension between his pairs, he also shows the implicit, and sometimes suspect, element of artistic collaboration, or, rather, dependence of a man on a woman: Hong’s filming of a movie that is in effect Areum’s screenplay also places his own artistic collaboration with Kim at the center of the film.
“Grass” is a movie of memory, with the café serving as a sort of spontaneous public confessional booth that customers fill with fragments of their past lives and the ongoing force of their traumas. The construction of deep backstories from these surfacing shards of stories is the core of “Grass.” Hong dramatizes the radical gap between the plainness and ordinariness of his physical world and the vast realms of experience and imagination that he envisions there. His sense of place is both concrete and abstract; his view is both practical and symbolic, both clear and mysterious. (One woman’s private conundrum finds a starkly simple dramatic correlate in her frenzied walk up and down a staircase.) The café itself is as much a character as the people who frequent it—as is all the more apparent when they’re not there. They’ve filled it with their pain and their bitterness and, even after they’ve left, those ardent confrontations linger on the surfaces, seep into its matter. It’s as if the café itself were a graveyard of emotion, a quiet monument to the people who passed through there, this day and yesterday and from its very start—and as if the cinema itself were the instrument of memory that preserves and exalts the lives to which the stones silently bear witness.