Watching and Being Watched: Hong Sang-soo’s “Grass”
Hong Sang-soo’s pitiable, bibulous characters always seem in pursuit of something ineffable, something just out of reach. Sad and voluble, they desire love, and answers to questions they can’t quite articulate. In Grass, his first film of 2018, a rotating coterie of couples bicker and banter and talk at length about the various banal things that comprise the majority of relationships. It’s a film about the unimportant moments, the minutiae that would normally be cut from a mainstream narrative.
Hong works at a prodigious rate (Grass is his fourth film in the last 12 months), and one has to view each successive film as another chapter in an ongoing narrative, a sort of personal film essay about the quandaries and pleasures of love, of drinking, of loneliness. Each new chapter builds, and deviates, from the last. He seems increasingly uninterested in appealing to neophytes. The 60-minute Grass, as potent and brief as a shot of soju or an avid love affair, has little to offer newcomers, but the initiated will devour it. The film opens with a group of potted plants budding, blades of grass rising through the dirt. New life is blooming. A young woman wearing a backpack walks into a coffee shop. Outside, a man with a laptop open before him lights up a cigarette. Inside, a couple on the wane have an argument, as the camera pans back and forth between them, keeping them separated as they shout. Listening to their spat is the alluring, sylph-like Areum (Hong’s muse and partner Kim Min-hee), who takes notes on the conversations occurring around her, turning them into characters.
With its laconic pacing, voyeuristic zooms, and badinage between despondent men and women, Grass fits comfortably within Hong’s aesthetic; thematically, it again explores the ontological pain of everyday existence, and the tumult that rises between lonely souls. In quotidian imagery — a half-empty cup of coffee, a cigarette smoked alone, a MacBook in a coffee shop window — Hong finds poetry. Here, it is the appearance of lives, the gaze of outsiders, that tell the story. Hong is a realist, but his films exist in an altered reality, worlds that are familiar and almost sentient, aware of their own reality, their own systems of logic. (Think of the bifurcated structure and repetition of Right Now, Wrong Then , or the “It was all a dream, maybe” ending of last year’s On the Beach at Night Alone .) For Hong, life and love are stories being written in real time. He luxuriates in the rhythm and uncertain beauty of words. He is Eastern cinema’s most devout acolyte of the power of conversation. He even directs like a writer, using reverse shots like paragraph breaks, pans like transitions between chapters, zooms to visually describe minute details. It is with mundanity, meditative introspection, and truculent banter veering eventually into outright insults and lies that men and women speak to each other in Hong’s films, and Areum, like Hong, takes it all in. She tries to understand strangers by listening to out-of-context colloquies.
With her observant reticence and eventual vicarious involvement with romantic imbroglios of those on whom she eavesdrops, she resembles Min-hee’s character from the similarly sober The Day After (2017), an indolent young woman and aspiring writer who works for a publisher and earns the ire of her boss’s wife when she’s mistaken for his mistress. In the comely Min-hee, Hong has found his great consort (she has appeared in five of his last six films), and one may be reminded of the way Olivier Assayas uses Maggie Cheung, his eventual wife, in Irma Vep (1996). Both filmmakers don’t bother trying to hide their feelings for their actresses, and this fervor comes through in the way the camera captures them, effervescent, empyreal. When a man asks if he can study Areum, the way she studies the cafe’s other habitués, she takes offense. “I’ve got a boyfriend,” she retorts. He persists, saying he’s “not some strange kind of guy.” She steadfastly refuses, packs her laptop, and leaves. She will watch, but does not want to be watched.
Her reluctance to be analyzed reflects Hong’s refusal to develop characters fully. He only gives us glimpses, brief and fleeting. A couple walks down the street holding hands; a woman ascends and descends a staircase repeatedly; Areum sings as she traipses through a quiet alley. None of this means much to us, but it means something to them. “My heart is cold regardless,” she coos, her voice drifting through the night. “You make me feel sorry.”
While undeniably a Hong film, Grass features a few anomalies for the auteur. Of particular note, he uncharacteristically makes use of rack focus to visually ostracize characters, creating a solipsistic feeling. These are loquacious but self-centered people, always talking but rarely listening.
Grass is a film of beginnings, middles, and ends, but they’re scrambled. We hear snippets of these characters’ conversations, the talk of people who have history already, and who nonetheless talk to each other like they’re strangers, disagreeing on memories, reaching differing conclusions; we’ll never really know their lives. If fiction is an attempt to understand life, Hong’s film is fascinated by what we can’t know — the tiny mysteries of diurnal endeavors. “That’s how life is,” a man says, near the end. “Need to end it sometime.”
Hong Sang-soo’s Grass had its world premiere at the 2018 Berlinale Forum.