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.
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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.