NYFF 2018 review: Grass (Hong Sang-soo)

Hong Sang-soo surely has to be the most prolific major director working today. While other, less quality-consistent directors may be making more movies on an annual basis, Hong’s works consistently push narrative boundaries and upend normal storytelling formulas. Hong released three films (On the Beach at Night Alone, Claire’s Camera, and The Day After) in 2017 alone and this year, two of his films have premiered: one at the Berlin Film Festival (Grass) and another at the Locarno Film Festival (Hotel by the River). In Grass, his 22nd feature film, Hong continues his use of stylistic flourishes and personal autobiography to present the stories of characters going through mourning and struggle while still retaining feelings of levity, poignancy and humor.

Most of Grass takes place at a small cafe where Kim Min-hee stars as a writer named Areum, who eavesdrops on other patrons. The cafe is occupied by three separate couples of varying ages who all have similar conversations throughout the film about dilemmas and conflicts in their lives. The first couple is very young, and has an emotional conversation regarding the aftermath of the death of a friend. Many of their thoughts and statements are harsh towards each other but they end up wanting to spend more time together. The second couple, middle aged, has a less dramatic story but similarly they are trying to form a relationship. Lastly, the third couple consists of two older patrons. The male is an actor past his prime, attempting to rent a room from his female counterpart. Like the other couples he also is trying to make his relationship with his friend become more serious even though it is in a more roundabout way by renting a room. To much comic relief, in all three couples the male counterpart pushes for a stronger connection with the female which eventually leads to the relationships beginning to take root.

Hong though, satisfyingly, doesn’t tell us the whole story of any of these characters but still is able to paint their human complexity and show the many sides of one story with their brief conversations. Within the conversation that occurs between each of the three couples nothing is completely explained and Hong never shows us everything. Like Kim Min-hee’s character, we are eavesdroppers as well on all the individuals in the film.

Areum’s story is the only one in the film set outside the cafe. Her major conflict, if you can even call it that, is with her brother. She disagrees with his desire to marry a girl that he hardly knows and argues with him on how they must know each other better before they marry. Much like her limited understanding of the motivations and desires of the cafe patrons, her brother’s motivations are unknown to her. In a sort of comedic pathos, Areum consistently gets in bad moods because she thinks all relationships end badly: her brother’s and the three at the cafe. Hong not only filters the lives of all the other characters but also adds levity by using Areum’s personality as a reflection of these normal human relationships.

Even though Grass only lasts for a slight sixty minutes, the last twenty are shot in sublime black and white night cinematography and filled with sumptuous and swelling classical music. Thematically the film may be a change for Hong as he focuses on darker themes, though he still retains high spirits by relying on his trademark awkward humor and bottles of soju on a late autumn night. Though it may be a shorter Hong work, and one in which there isn’t much direct plot, Grass still remains a very breezy and beautiful film from our master filmmaker.