Grass is a great example of how to make a film out of thin air. Taking a café that plays loud classical music as a setting, the latest film from Hong Sangsoo may only be a small trifle, but its still an enjoyable one nonetheless. It is the cinematic equivalent of a bunch of notebook scribblings, but like a tossed-off sketch on a tissue from Picasso, a short film from Sangsoo is still worthy of appreciation. Shot in black-and-white, think of it like Coffee and Cigarettes, only with South Koreans instead.
Kim Min-hee, who stars in nearly all of Sangsoo’s films and remains an essential component of his style, excels as a woman who likes to overhear nearby conversations and write them down. She steals the show in one scene, viciously ribbing her brother with his new girlfriend. We don’t get to know much about her, as she chooses not to reveal a lot of her own identity, being a perennial fly-on-the-wall to what she sees and hears. She is the conduit for the filmmaker here, a man whose dialogue has the ring of real life. These exchanges are as witty as ever, bringing out sharp exchanges such as:
“How have you been?”
“I’ve been drinking.”
There is also a man who asks whether he can follow a woman around for ten days in order to write all about her, and a group of friends who sneak a bottle of soju into the café, mentioning that late autumn is the best time to drink it. It’s not all humour, however, as a few conversations take a darker turn towards discussing friends who have committed suicide. Despite this comic-tragic imbalance, Sangsoo makes it feel all of a piece, mostly by making it reflect real life. The timeline of these stories is a little unclear, with the camera eventually panning away from the mostly two-hander conversations back to our female protagonist, who is writing down every word they say. The sounds of their conversations go silent, and then we are on to the next scenario.
There is a sense that Sangsoo is playing with the audience, wondering what they would tolerate in the name of watching one of his movies. A particularly notable scene — one which could have come across as pretentious and annoying if it wasn’t so obviously tongue in cheek — shows a woman repeatedly walking up and down a flight of stairs. He knows that he is a very popular director, so he is gently testing the audience’s patience here.
The reason the film and a scene such as that works is that it never overstays its welcome. Coming in just over an hour, Grass is a brief cinematic excursion that knows exactly when to stop; any longer and it could’ve become tiresome. In addition, everyone performs exceedingly well, filling these short story characters full of life. Sangsoo’s filming style — replete with medium length shots, making use of a lot of zooms and pans — is as reliable as ever, as are his themes. One character even notes that he, like Sangsoo, writes the same thing over and over again. As a humanist filmmaker, more interested in the nuances of human interaction than anything else, Sangsoo’s movies do feel like different variations of the same concepts. What makes him so special is that each one is still so enjoyable.
Hong Sangsoo is a remarkably prolific filmmaker, releasing three films last year alone, including the masterpiece On The Beach at Night Alone. The Korean equivalent of Eric Rohmer, his movies can be somewhat addictive. While this strange output would hardly be the first one to recommend — Right Now, Wrong Then is a much better entry point — it is perfect for diehard fans who only have an hour or so to spare. What makes Grass fascinating is the way it feels like a script-writing session for one of Sangsoo’s longer movies, trying out different characters and scenarios and seeing if anything sticks. This is supported by the sense that these characters seemingly have nothing to do other than drink coffee and talk in this place, staying there for the entire duration of a day. This gives it a certain metafictional fascination; perhaps more so than any other Hong Sangsoo film, one can really feel the director pulling the strings. While his latest effort is hardly life-changing, Grass is a great example of hangout cinema at its best.