Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival. Cinema Guild releases the film on Friday, April 19.
Another festival, another film by Hong Sang-soo. It’s always been hard to talk about the South Korean auteur without talking about the Fassbinder-like frequency with which he churns out new work, and it’s only becoming harder now that he’s really started to pick up the pace; good luck finding a single review of Hong’s recent features that doesn’t start by referencing his prolificacy. But as much as we encourage you to spare a thought for the poor critics who are forced to write 1,000 words about this guy every time he decides to pick up a camera, that phenomenon may be less indicative of lazy journalism than it seems. “Grass” — Hong’s first movie of 2018, and his fourth in the last 12 months — goes so far as to suggest that his prolificacy might be a crucial part of his cinema, as well as an indispensably helpful lens through which to look at each new joint of his body of work.
It’s always been evident that every Hong Sang-soo movie questions its own reality (at least since 1998’s “The Power of Kangwon Province,” in which scenes repeat and time splinters away from itself), but the last few years have made it increasingly clear that every new Hong Sang-soo movie also questions the reality of the ones that came before it. It’s a natural side-effect of a cinema in which what happens tends to be less important than what already happened, in which what already happened tends to be less important than what could have happened, and in which all of these real or imagined temporalities tend to be less important than the cavities that form in between them. That’s true of Hong’s individual films, and it’s also true of his filmography on the whole, each new film building on the previous ones like the round of a canon.
In that light, it’s telling that “Pachelbel’s Canon” can often be heard in the background of Hong’s latest, a beguiling 66-minute charmer that will likely be as illuminating for the director’s die-hard fans as it will be impenetrable for those who are new to his work. For such a short film, “Grass” takes a while to reveal its basic premise: A pretty woman named Areum (Hong’s partner and muse Kim Min-hee) is sitting in a nondescript coffee shop somewhere outside of Seoul, eavesdropping on the various conversations around her and typing notes into her Macbook. There isn’t a writer alive who can’t put herself in her shoes.
The first people she overhears are a girl named Mina (Gong Min-jeung) and a guy named Hong-soo (Ahn Jae-hong). They have the sort of furtive, vaguely hostile conversation that always bubbles up between men and women in Hong’s films, exchanging banal digs and imperceptible lies until the subject turns to a mutual friend whose death remains a sore spot for them both. Later — or possibly earlier — an aging actor (Ki Joo-bong) tries to shack up with a female acquaintance, which inspires some eye-rolling skepticism from Areum.
A handful of other people come and go, the cafe’s owner always just out of sight. It’s unclear who knows each other, or in what capacity, or if they even exist outside of Areum’s imagination, but it doesn’t really matter. The biggest plot reveal is saved for some booze, as Hong devotees confused about the uncharacteristic lack of drinking are eventually rewarded with a late scene in which someone sneaks in a bottle of soju. It’s a pleasure-delayed moment that the director withholds like he’s Martin Campbell saving the James Bond theme for the last scene of “Casino Royale.”
In the meantime, most hardcore Hong-ians will probably find their imaginations caught on other details, like the irrelevant question of whether Kim is reprising her character from last year’s “The Day After,” a wide-eyed teetotaler who landed a job at a small publishing house run by a guy in a romantic crisis. Her name was also Areum. In a more linear filmography, that might be enough to label “Grass” as some kind of sequel. But this new movie isn’t continuing the story of the previous one so much as it’s compounding it with new concerns. “The Day After” hinges on the question: “Can words ever capture reality?” “Grass” answers that question with another question: “Can anything?”
Much less consistently enjoyable than many Hong films twice its length, “Grass” compensates for its dramatic slackness and deviant sobriety by honing in on the ideas that its director’s work often skirts around. If all of the searching zoom shots aren’t enough to get the point across, the scene where Areum switches from idly observing strangers to furiously yelling at her brother should seal the deal: We are too close to our own lives to see them clearly.
“Nobody ever thinks of their own death,” Areum sighs as she listens to Mina and Hong-soo, but sitting at her laptop absolves her of thinking about her own anything. “I have good hearing,” she bashfully admits to someone who catches her in the act, but she’s deaf to her own experience. Perhaps writing about all the people around her absolves Areum from having her own experience. And yet, that myopia only makes everyone more interesting to her, and her to us — the same way that the most compelling movie in the world is always the one that someone is watching on the back of the airplane seat next to yours. The same way it isn’t possible to fully appreciate one of Hong’s films until you see the one he makes next.
“Grass” premiered at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival.