‘Grass’ Review: Eavesdropping in the Coffee Shop With Hong Sang-soo

‘Grass’ Review: Eavesdropping in the Coffee Shop With Hong Sang-soo

April 18, 2019

In the more than 30 years since he directed his first feature, the South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo has refined his seemingly rudimentary style to the extent that it can deliver some surprisingly elaborate effects.

In the opening shot of “Grass,” the director’s latest picture to reach the United States, a young woman with a backpack enters a coffee shop. The door closes behind her; on a bench outside the shop’s front, a middle-aged, unshaven man sits, and lights a cigarette.

Hong cuts to inside the shop. In a medium shot, the young woman sits across from a young man at a table that’s up against a wall. They have an increasingly tense conversation. “I’m not doing so well,” the woman says. The camera does a slow zoom in on the man, who looks concerned; it swivels, deliberately, to the woman. They discuss, and then argue about, a friend who has committed suicide.

The camera cuts to a medium close-up of a young woman, her long ponytail positioned over the side of her face, sitting before a laptop, writing. At first, the sight is bracing for the Hong maven: his pictures often feature writers as protagonists, but they’re almost never shown actually writing. The other effect of the cut is to suggest that the conversation between the young man and young woman is a product of this character’s imagination, that she is working on a short story or a screenplay.

But no. She’s just another customer at the same coffee shop. By declining to show the shop’s interior in a wide establishing shot, the director casually creates a sense of dislocation that hangs over the rest of this short feature, whose title, as it happens, derives from the title of a popular Korean translation of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

The young woman writer, played by Kim Min-hee (a Hong regular since 2015), observes mostly melancholy people, old and young, who have arrived at turning points in their lives. She can be introverted to the point of defensiveness when confronted about her rather obvious eavesdropping. Not that her interlocutors are aggressive; they show a friendly diffidence, inviting her to drink with them after they bring bottles of soju into the place.

She is less shy when it comes to her younger brother and his girlfriend, who get a relentless tongue-lashing from her in one of the few scenes that leave the coffee shop.

This movie, like most of Hong’s others, doesn’t pass judgment on its largely passive protagonist. In fact, it suggests that observing the people that pass through one’s sight and hearing is an entirely valid mode of living. Despite the fact that she’s writing down what she’s witnessing, you believe her when she tells another character she has no intent to publish or “do” anything with what she types on her laptop. When the writer opts to just let things be, the movie is at its most content.


Movie data powered by IMDb.com

Not rated. In Korean, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 6 minutes.

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