At 66 minutes, Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s “Grass” barely qualifies as feature length. It works within a confined space, restricting its setting, apart from a few scenes, to a café. It was obviously filmed very quickly. Although Hong has a strong visual style, the screenplay of “Grass” could easily be staged as theater. Everyone who has followed Hong’s work to this point knows that his films keep repeating a small number of motifs: male filmmakers who are attracted to younger women, people getting drunk in cafés and letting their emotions get the better of themselves, breaking up the frame with zooms. “Grass” isn’t a radical departure from the Hong Sang-soo cinematic universe, but it suggests that he’s questioning his place in constructing it.
Areum (Kim Min-hee) sits in a café, writing in her journal on a laptop. To her left, a couple argue about the suicide of a young woman. An elderly actor, Chungsoo (Ki Joo-bong), is trying to get back in the good graces of a young woman, Sungha (Seo Young-hwa). A filmmaker, Kyungsoo (Jung Ji-young), struggles to get a new project off the ground. We see a few modest scenes of Areum with her siblings outside the café.
Does Hong get ideas for his scripts by sitting in cafés and listening to people talk about their lives? Even if this isn’t literally true, Areum comes across as a truer stand-in for him than filmmaker Kyungsoo. Unlike the other characters, the spectator gets access to her thoughts. Her reflections on death spill out into the rest of “Grass.” Hong’s work started getting consistently darker when his relationship with Kim became a scandal in the South Korean media. “On the Beach At Night Alone” cast her as a woman recovering from the end of an affair that sounded very much like her real-life relationship with Hong.
Hong has made many films about filmmakers pursuing women, which usually don’t play out as simple and self-serving male fantasies. Here he seems to pass the torch of creativity to his muse. Even though Areum is just writing in her journal, she has the power to bring a world to life, while the film’s male artists don’t get much accomplished. But what she describes is more important than its ultimate nature. The world of “Grass” is haunted by the idea of personal complicity in other people’s fate.
Hong has often been compared to Alain Resnais, and “Grass” raises questions about the reality of what we’re watching in a way that evokes the French director’s work. Still, it never gets surreal. In fact, the arguments about personal responsibility for others’ death are quite sobering. But if they’re taking place in the real world, it seems odd that Areum’s preoccupations are shared by more than one couple sitting around her. Or does she start thinking about the world around her and create a feedback loop? Is she imagining the entire film? The final third of “Grass” rolls around in time, repeating a few lines of dialogue from the beginning but leading to a new line of thought from Areum.
The use of classical music by Wagner, Schubert, Offenbach, and Pachelbel veers from melodrama to irony. At first, Hong simply zooms in closer on his characters and then pans from person to person as they speak. Later on, the camera settles on a shadow of a man’s head on the café wall. “Grass” was shot in unobtrusively handsome black-and-white cinematography. Hong made a number of directorial decisions that undercut the film’s naturalism.
He makes so many films that his overall oeuvre seems more valuable than singling any particular one out as a masterpiece, particularly because they share so much and build on top of each other. “Grass” is thematically ambitious but modest and doesn’t aim to cover much ground. Hell, it barely leaves one room. That led to an “Oh no, Hong Sang-soo should stop making so many films” response when it toured the festival circuit in 2018.
But, writing in Indiewire upon its New York Film Festival appearance, Adina Glickstein suggested that critics who dismissed it as too slight or fragmentary overlooked its place as part of a larger whole and likened it to Louise Bourgeois’ deliberately unrefined sculpture “Untitled (No. 2), 1996.” If “Grass” feels like the cinematic equivalent of a B-side, that permits a degree of experimentation that is taboo when aiming for hits.
GRASS | Directed by Hong Sang-soo | In Korean with English subtitles | The Cinema Guild | Opens April 19 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St. , btwn. Canal & Hester Sts. | metrograph.com