Nameless couples in a timeless coffee shop vent their emotions in Grass, the latest installment in the whimsical oeuvre of writer-director Hong Sang-soo. There’s something in his characters and their boozy, neurotic, often humorous discussions about love and death that irresistibly recall a Korean version of Woody Allen; the same modern, light touch in search of psychological depth and big themes is evident even in a slight film like the one-location, 66-minute Grass. The choice to shoot in unspectacular black and white and in uninterrupted long takes (par for Hong’s course) brands it as mainly for the fan club, whose ranks seem to grow with every new addition.
Hong’s work is not only continuous (he released three features last year) but very interactive, since it tends to recycle casts and characters from film to film. The standout performance in Grass is once again the lively Kim Min-hee of The Day After, in which she played a young writer named Areum who goes to work for a publishing company, and in the finely wrought On the Beach at Night Alone, where her role as a tormented young actress won her best acting kudos at the Berlin Film Festival last year.
Here she is again, a writer named Areum, busily typing and eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers in a coffee shop on a quiet back street. The location is deliberately stripped of connotations, as though it was a place out of time. There is no sign of an owner or a waiter, only nonstop classical music playing in the background, often in jarring contrast to the action.
Outside are some containers full of growing shoots, which must have a symbolic value since nothing else in the film remotely resembles grass. A 40-something actor looking for inspiration (Jung Jin-young) tries to convince a young woman (Kim Sae-byuk) who is a professional writer to co-write a screenplay with him. She cuts him dead (“Merging your thoughts with someone else isn’t easy”) but agrees to have dinner later on.
Meanwhile (or perhaps in another moment of the day; the timing is artfully blurred) a terrible argument breaks out between a girl (Gong Min-jung) and a boy (Ahn Jae-hong) at a nearby table. She accuses him of being responsible for the suicide of a mutual friend, who one imagines was his girlfriend. Her shrieking accusations crescendo into hysterics, while he weakly defends himself.
After this long take, the camera moves to Areum on her laptop, typing away. Was the suicide drama just the figment of her creative imagination? It seems possible, but the lines are blurred when she starts interacting with the other characters. The actor from the first scene sits down at her table and invites her to be his inspiration. He proposes they live together for 10 days while he studies her, a proposal she brushes off.
Echoing this scene is an older woman (Seo Young-hwa) at another table who brushes off an old acquaintance (Ki Joo-bong), a mythical theater director/actor who is now out of work, house and money. He finds out she’s living in a three-room apartment and asks, insistently, if he can move in.
Another couple turns up, also playing the blame game over the death of a mutual friend. Both are drinking heavily (as in all the director’s work, alcohol provides the fuel to bring hidden feelings out into the open.) The unseen man (Kim Myoung-su) cruelly charges the woman (Lee You-young) with the death of his buddy Prof. Choi, who killed himself over an office scandal. He drunkenly blames her for plying the man she loved with too many drinks; had he been sober, he never would have taken his life over such a trivial matter.
These mirror image scenes, which are basically variations on a theme, bring to mind Hong’s narratively fascinating Right Then, Wrong Now, also starring Min-hee as a fledgling writer. In that film, the same encounter between a man and a woman is told twice, with slight variations, in two consecutive parts. Here, the story shifts in two contrasting scenes, making it clear that the characters one sympathizes with depend entirely on the way the story is told.
Kim’s Areum is edgy, multilayered and far from docile. A very funny, calibrated scene involves her lunching with her nice, clean-cut brother Jinho (Shin Seo-kho making his film bow), who introduces her to his girlfriend, Yeonju (Ahn Sun-young). After Areum gives her a catty third degree about her age and intentions, the girl admits she’s thinking about tying the knot. This enrages Areum even further, prompting a blow-out with Jinho and his apologetic, get-a-laugh line to Yeonju, “She’s got a difficult side.”
Production company: Jeonwonsa Film Co
Cast: Kim Min-hee, Jung Jin-young, Ki Joo-bong, Seo Young-hwa, Kim Sae-byuk, Ahn Jae-hong, Gong Minjeung, Ahn Sun-young, Shin Seo-kho, Kim Myoung-su, Lee You-young
Director-screenwriter: Hong Sang-soo
Director of photography: Kim Hyung-koo
Editor: Son Yeon-ji
World sales: Finecut