You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Berlin Film Review: ‘Grass’

Korean arthouse darling Hong Sangsoo packs a surprising level of engaging complexity into this deceptively modest hour-long package.

Kim Minhee, Jung Jinyoung, Ki Joobong, Seo Younghwa, Kim Saebyuk, Ahn Jaehong Gong Minjeung, Ahn Sunyoung, Shin Seokho Kim Myoungsu, Lee Youyoung. (Korean dialogue)

1 hour 3 minutes

There aren’t many filmmakers who can outmatch South Korean director Hong Sangsoo’s current form for sheer productivity. In fact it’s perhaps only Japan’s Takashi Miike who can legitimately glance at Hong’s filmography for the past decade and think “slacker.” “Grass” is Hong’s 15th film in 10 years (not counting shorts and documentaries), and it is his fourth festival premiere of the last 12 months. It is, however, just 63 minutes long, and, considering that it clocks in six minutes shy of his 2017 Cannes bauble “Claire’s Camera,” and three minutes shorter than 2014’s terminally slight “Hill of Freedom,” we could be forgiven for expecting a doodle.

The surprise, then, is that without reinventing the Hong wheel even a little bit, the black-and-white “Grass” is a deceptively potent entry in the canon, a thimbleful of purest, concentrated Hong-brand soju. It may be yet another series of two-way or three-way conversations, that take place in a shared public space over cups of coffee and, later, stiffer drinks. But it’s almost as though those elements have become generic constructs in Hong’s work, so familiar from other titles of his that here they require no set up or explanation.

Even in his more luxuriant features, he gives the impression of a filmmaker impatient with the mundane necessity of putting the camera somewhere, finding locations, deciding on angles. In “Grass,” his regular cinematographer Kim Hyungku keeps most everything in simple profile two-shots, or over-the-shoulder frames. Formal flourishes are minimal: just the odd shaky zoom, and a couple of terrific, incongruous soundtrack cuts including one bizarrely effective version of “Oh Susannah” that sounds like it was played on a fairground ride. The rest is Hong at his least cluttered and most ascetic, with the spartan backstreet coffee shop location serving as a gallery space and the mercurial, silvery strands of connection between the patrons comprising the artifacts on display.

A young woman, Mina (Gong Minjeung), slides into a booth opposite Hongsoo (Ahn Jaehong). She tells him she’s embarking on a trip to Europe, though that later turns out to be false. They exchange pleasantries that turn unpleasant when the topic shifts to a deceased mutual friend and Mina insists they both bear some degree of responsibility. Blame also arises a table over when the demure-looking Sunghwa (frequent Hong ensemble player Seo Younghua) is accused of causing the suicide of a well-regarded professor. An opportunistic, past-his-prime actor (Ki Joobong) tries to inveigle himself into an old acquaintance’s apartment, and the inevitable Hong-surrogate filmmaker (Jung Jinyoung) is rebuffed by writer Jiyoung (Kim Saebyuk) when he asks to partner up on a screenplay.

In shifting permutations, these people end up staying late into the night, all the while observed by Areum, played by Hong’s muse, Kim Minhee, who sits mostly alone at a window table, frowning at her laptop. For a time we can almost wonder if the conversations on which she’s eavesdropping are really happening or if they’re manifestations of what she’s writing. And we can further wonder if this Areum is the same Areum, also an aspiring writer played by Kim Minhee, who appeared in Hong’s 2017 “The Day After.” If so, would that make “Grass” a sequel or a prequel in the Hong Cinematic Universe?

Such a question is nonsense, of course. Hong might take issue with Jean-Luc Godard’s famous contention that “a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order,” not because he’s wedded to linear chronology (far from it), just that in Hong’s moebius-strip ethos, there is seldom only one of each. People who have met before talk to each other like strangers; conversations that seem to reach a friendship-ending impasse somehow reset themselves back into civility; characters remember the same shared history in radically oppositional ways, when they remember it at all. All films are sculptures in time, but Hong’s are impossible objects.

“Trying to merge your thoughts with another person is not so easy,” says Jiyoung at one point, and this is the elusive and endless territory Hong returns to again and again with every new title, each similar to the last and yet unique, like the patterns formed by a twist of the same kaleidoscope. Outside the cafe, in a small planter, grass grows upward and time moves forward. But inside Hong’s flat-lit proscenium, the characters are unglued from time mired in a boozy, shapeshifting now, in which they can endlessly experience the mystery and miracle of other people and all the things we cannot know about them.

Berlin Film Review: 'Grass'

Reviewed at Kino Arsenal, Berlin, Jan 18th, 2018. (In Berlin Film Festival - Forum Section). Running Time: 63 MIN. (Original Title: "Pul-lip-deul")

Production: (Korea) A Jeonwonsa Film Company production. (International sales: Finecut, Seoul.) Producer: Hong Sangsoo.

Crew: Director, Screenplay: Hong Sangsoo. Camera (Black & White): Kim Hyungkoo. Editor: Son Yeonji. Music: Andrew Orkin.

With: Kim Minhee, Jung Jinyoung, Ki Joobong, Seo Younghwa, Kim Saebyuk, Ahn Jaehong Gong Minjeung, Ahn Sunyoung, Shin Seokho Kim Myoungsu, Lee Youyoung. (Korean dialogue)

More Film

  • Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman Starring in

    Viola Davis, Chadwick Boseman Starring in 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' for Netflix

    Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman will star in the movie adaptation of the play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” for Netflix. George C. Wolfe (“Lackawanna Blues”) will direct from a script by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, based on the award-winning play by August Wilson. Other cast include Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) and Michael Potts. Denzel [...]

  • Crazy Bitches

    Why the CASE Act Will Empower Creatives to Fight the Horrors of Piracy

    Our horror film, “Crazy Bitches,” was released on Valentine’s Day 2015. We invested in an online marketing campaign that resulted in two times the industry clickthrough rate and 2.6M social media impressions in the week leading up to the release. So, we had reason to expect a successful return. What we didn’t count on was [...]

  • Alamo Drafthouse LA

    Alamo Drafthouse to Open in Downtown Los Angeles in July

    The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain is planning to open its first Los Angeles location with a “soft launch” in early July in the city’s downtown. The Texas-based chain, which has 38 locations, specializes food and drink service with unique programming. It announced Wednesday that the Los Angeles site, located at the Bloc, would offer an [...]

  • Max Landis Dropped by Manager Following

    Max Landis Dropped by Manager Following Sexual Assault Allegations

    Max Landis has been dropped as a client by his manager, a day after sexual assault allegations emerged against the  screenwriter. “I do not represent Max Landis,” Britton Rizzio at Writ Large Management told Variety in a statement. Landis is facing allegations of sexual abuse and psychological manipulation from eight women who told their stories [...]

  • Fox Layoffs

    Another Round of Layoffs Hit Disney and 20th Century Fox Film Divisions (EXCLUSIVE)

    Another round of layoffs are going down for employees merged in Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, individuals with knowledge of the company told Variety. The Wednesday reduction is the smallest round the studio has enacted since formally acquiring the film and TV assets of 20th Century in March, with a few dozen employees being [...]

  • Lin-Manuel Miranda

    Netflix Lands Lin-Manuel Miranda's 'Tick, Tick... Boom' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following a heated bidding war, Netflix has walked away with the rights to “Tick, Tick… Boom,” a musical adaptation to be directed by “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Sources say Andrew Garfield is the top choice to star, though no deal is done. “Dear Evan Hansen” writer Stephen Levenson adapting the script based on the original [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content