Grass (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)
Evan Morgan: Let’s start with the title. Hong arguably crafts the best titles of any filmmaker working today; something like On the Beach at Night Alone is tinged with mystery, poetical and allusive. Grass, on the other hand, sounds quite atypical: earthy, prosaic, direct. Critical writing on Hong often runs the risk of devolving into a game of spot-the-differences (full disclosure: it’s a game I like to play) but this title, which initially seems uncharacteristic, continues a certain tendency of Hong’s: to telegraph to his audience, quite literally, which objects might exercise a totemic effect on the film, objects that can shape and reshape the narrative. Claire’s Camera, Oki’s Movie, On the Occasion of Remembering Turning Gate. So why, then, Grass? The film does open with some kind of potted shrub, though it quickly moves to the interior space of nearby café. At one point, a few characters wander over to crouch down near the plant and it does make one final appearance after the credits roll, but it never takes center stage quite like those other objects. Whatever power it exerts over Hong’s narrative is merely suggestive, lacking the obvious metaphorical potential of, say, Huppert’s camera. The title speaks, rather modestly, of things that grow, of fecundity and naturalness and finally — dare I say — of a kind of utopia.
We’ll get to where Grass ultimately ends up, I’m sure, but let’s linger on the road for a while — and a verdant lane it is not. The film is haunted by at least two deaths (more on that later too), and is, for much of its short runtime, a rather cruel work.
Sean Gilman: I do think there’s something to the title. Initially I thought of Whitman, the source as well of the title for On the Beach at Night Alone, especially when you mentioned to me that the Korean version of the title more directly translates to “Grass Leaves”. Whitman apparently chose Leaves of Grass as the title of his life’s work, continuously revised, as a pun. Quoting wikipedia quoting someone else: “”Grass” was a term given by publishers to works of minor value, and “leaves” is another name for the pages on which they were printed.” Hong’s Grass too is made up of stories of seemingly minor value, exchanges and conversations that are variations on themes Hong has been working with for over twenty years now, losing some value perhaps in their repetition.
But I also think about the title in relation to Carl Sandburg and his poem of the same name. That poem is specifically about death, about the dead men of Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg, and Verdun, shoveled under and covered by grass. The final lines I think give a new perspective to our Hongian short stories, perhaps shedding some light on Kim Minhee’s role in the film:
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
Kim sits in her café, like us overhearing various Hongian conversations, about love gone wrong and suicide and horny actors trying to convince women to let them stay with them for just a few days. She takes in the stories and writes. . . something. We don’t know what. She could be writing the characters themselves (twenty years of Hong has taught us to expect that kind of thing) or she could just be writing what she thinks about them. Or she could be inspired by their stories to create new ones of her own. She covers them all, if they’d just let her work.
I suppose I’m getting ahead of where we should be in trying to review this film, but it’s such an unusual work that it’s hard to talk about it as a linearly progressing narrative. It has that, a story of a day in the life of a café and the people who hang around there, each with their own little story arc and unique interaction with Kim’s own. It’s basically a network narrative, along the lines of Robert Altman, but Altman’s cynical coldness (which Hong adopted frequently, especially in his early work) is leavened by the film’s raw emotionality and its omnipresent score, dominated by long stretches of the lush romanticism of Schubert and Wagner. In its circularity, an essential feature of Altman’s network stories (as opposed to, say, Richard Linklater’s), the film invites increasingly mystical readings. The café could be a way station in the afterlife, it could be a fictional construct of a writer dealing with her own issues (perhaps she had a friend or lover recently commit suicide?), or it could just be an ordinary café. As is usual with Hong, I end up deciding that it is all those things (and more) at the same time.
EM: I like the idea of the café as afterlife — and in that way your citation of Sandburg might not be so far off. There’s one telling line of dialogue that really stuck out to me. The oldest actor, who appears to be recovering from a deep bout of depression, mentions an attempt to take his own life: “after my suicide I didn’t drink much.” It might be a consequence of translation, but to me that particular phrasing implies that the man who speaks the line may already be dead. But, as you suggest, Hong is too protean an artist, too resistant to metaphor, to allow for a reading that thuddingly literary. To allude to Whitman again, there are always multitudes.
In a great interview that CinemaScope ran a few years back, Hong drew a weird little sketch with the caption “infinite worlds possible,” and though he’s played with repetition and narrative branching before, I do wonder if Grass realizes that principle most fully: instead of his oft-used this-then-that structure, which is multivalent but still fundamentally linear, Grass seems to hover between worlds, never committing to one or the other. The overwhelming sense here is one of simultaneity. I’m thinking of something as simple as that first pan from a couple in the café to Kim, who is also in the café but near the window, just off-screen. The way Hong shoots the interior of the café prevents us from obtaining a complete understanding of the space: it’s always segmented into this table or that table, this couple or that couple. So when he initially cuts from Kim contemplating her writing to a man and a woman speaking, one naturally assumes that these are her fictional creations, that we’ve moved onto a different narrative plane. But after a few minutes of chatter, Hong casually tracks over to Kim, and two worlds, previously understood to be apart, are fused together. When taken in combination with the wall-to-wall music (which I’m glad you mentioned; it’s integral to the emotional texture of the film) moments like this create a sense of the film rising and converging, a crescendo effect prolonged until the final moments.
That effect is also an essential feature of the network film; the movements of a dozen roundelays suddenly click together. Though I wasn’t thinking of Altman. The Rivette of Haut bas fragile and Va savoir came to mind: actors swirling around a central location, lives bleeding into fiction, and the bar or café transformed into a theater (what is a writer doing in a café if not performing the act of writing?). And there’s nothing more Rivettian in Hong’s body of work than that sequence which comes about halfway through Grass, where one of the women appears to achieve some kind of breakthrough (or maybe it’s a breakfrom: from the network of couples, from the café, from the fiction) by traversing a staircase over and over again. She begins the scene frustrated but ends, after much physical exertion, elated and smiling. In its trajectory from anger to some kind of bliss, it functions as a perfect synecdoche for the film.
SG: You know I love that sequence, one of the most singular in all of Hong’s work. Like the piggyback ride in Hahaha, it’s a wholly unexpected physical expression of an unnameable feeling, but even more abstract, because we know so little about that woman. We’d met her earlier: she’s a writer with whom the director from Claire’s Camera is hoping to work. They form the third of the three couples we meet in the café. She rebuffs his advances, and he moves on to make a similar offer to Kim herself (the first character to actually interact with her), while the writer goes away (she says she has to meet. . . her boyfriend? I forget). We don’t see her again until sometime later, after the events in the restaurant, right? In that strange interlude after the mood of the film has turned its sourest (the interrogation scene and Kim’s fight with her brother)? But then, with her repeated climbing and descending, as her mood changes so does that of the film. Kim undergoes something similar: walking back to the café she hears a song, some kind of folk pop song coming from somewhere. She walks past and it diminishes, then she walks back and it grows louder. We don’t know what happens next, Hong elides it, but when we return to the café everything has changed. It’s like the movie is wholly uninterested in traditional narrative trajectory (the this-then-that you refer to), rather trying to capture the rising and falling (and vice versa) feeling of music itself. Never has a Hong film been so structured by mood.
At the same time, its building blocks are the typical Hongian games of repetition. All three men in the café are actors, though at different stages of life and career. Three women are asked by a man if he can live with them for awhile. There are three suicides, two successful (or maybe three, if this is the afterlife). There are three writers (counting Kim). All the conversations are standard Hong table shots, except one. That one, what I’ve been calling the “interrogation scene”, is one of the more intense conversations of Hong’s career, as raw as the opening fight in Yourself and Yours but much more cruel. It’s not a table shot, but rather a long over-the-shoulder one of a man questioning a woman he thinks contributed to their mutual friend’s suicide (by inducing him to drink too much). The camera holds on her face for a long time, we never see his. But the most unusual thing is when it pans away from them to the wall, where we see the man’s shadow speaking while any trace of the woman has been erased. It may be the most horrifying thing Hong has ever shot, and that’s including the bloody finale of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well.
EM: Why is that “interrogation scene” so upsetting? The narrative material is well-trod ground, so it must be a consequence of that pan to the wall that you highlight, which is almost a mirror image of the earlier pan to Kim in the café: instead of fusing two worlds, it tears them apart. A form of erasure, as you suggest. Or maybe it’s that over-the-shoulder framing: at some point in the movie one of the actors jokes that “it feels like we’re being observed” and there’s a way in which Hong’s constricted compositions throughout amplify the general air of surveillance. The “standard table shot” you refer to typically balances the performers across the center of the frame. Hong isn’t aiming for Premingerian objectivity, I don’t think, but his customary approach deploys none of the film grammar which typically signals perspective. But this film does. Given Kim’s role as outsider looking in, as a potential artificer weaving fiction from what she sees, the film’s attention to the act of watching — and being watched — seems essential to its final purpose.
Which brings me back to my claim that Grass arrives, ultimately, at a place of renewal. The network of couples end up back in the café — or just outside, in the case of Kim’s brother and his girlfriend — for another night of reminisces. Kim initially hovers back, as she has done throughout, apart and alone, but after sharing a smoke outside with one of the men she finally joins the group. The writer brought back into the fold of life. Grass features, arguably, more plot than any Hong since the ’90s. But all the incident is there just to bring us to this one moment: inviting Kim to join in on a classic Hong table shot. Only Hong could conceive of a movie in which something as simple as sitting down at a café table seems to lighten the weight of all the world’s loneliness.