Berlinale 2018: Grass


I could say that Hong Sang-soo is back with a new film, but this is his fourth project in the last 12 months, so it might be more accurate to say that Hong is still here with a new film. One of the most prolific and beloved arthouse directors working today, Hong’s Grass runs just over an hour long, a fact that also makes him one of the most considerate. The film’s premiere in Belin’s Forum section -- a choice one might perceive as a downgrade given that On the Beach at Night Alone screened last year in official competition -- suggests this might be seen as a more slight entry into his filmography, but Grass remains as consistent and enigmatic as Hong’s other recent output.

I would agree that Grass is a slight film, even though it really isn’t. Most of Hong’s films have some kind of structural gimmick, and here it comes from its lead character Areum (Kim Min-hee), a writer spending her days eavesdropping on other people in a cafe. She sits back on her laptop while we watch and listen to those around her: a struggling actor, a happy couple, a director, and a mourning pair of friends are just a few of the people Areum hears, or so we think. Truth is slippery here, and some of these conversations might actually be Areum imagining her own writing. Hong doesn’t make any clear distinction, nor does he seem bothered with presenting his film as a puzzle to be figured out. That gives Grass a freeing nature that makes it feel a bit flighty. You can take each exchange in its own context, which makes the film nicely compartmentalized.

But this is where the paradox comes in. A melancholy cloud hangs over Grass, with suicide being a topic of conversation in several scenes. At one point a man and woman drink together while he berates her over being responsible for his friend’s suicide, the camera pointed over the man’s shoulder from behind with the woman just out of focus, a stylistic choice that’s almost entirely new for Hong. So how can Grass deal with such heavy subject matter, show its director experimenting with different visual methods, and feel so lightweight at the same time? Figuring out the answer is part of Hong’s allure. Just as he can put ‘real’ and ‘fake’ scenes together here and make them coexist, he can also let these opposite reactions work at the same time. There’s more fun to be had with the contradictions Hong can bring up and explore in the span of one hour than what most other films can muster up with two.