Monday, April 15, 2019

Hong Sang-soo’s Grass

It is small café, but it is good for writing. You can always find a table and the owner doesn’t mind if you bring in your own soju to get hammered with. However, you still have to step outside to smoke, because that is the law, even in South Korea. These are all important considerations for Hong Sang-soo characters. We will listen in along with an eave-dropping woman as they wrestle with their neuroses and disappointments in Hong’s Grass, which opens this Friday in New York.

Areum types away as various pairings of characters confront each other. In previous Hong films, he probably would have openly invited viewers to question whether these characters are figments of her literary imagination or if she is merely recording what she overhears. However, this is the post-scandal Hong, who is now apparently less considered with narrative gamesmanship, so he only occasionally hints at such postmodern mischief-making this time around. Instead, he is more concerned with the crystallized essences of their respective angsts and anxieties.

One couple laments the presumptive suicide of a mutual friend, for whom they both feel some measure of guilt and responsibility. A self-destructive actor rather directly propositions a former lover to become his sole “sugar-daughter” means of support, but his pitiful state is not exactly a turn-on for her. Meanwhile, a younger actor-screenwriter is also trying to extract some dramatic truth from real-life for his latest script, but he is more direct and honest about his exploitative intentions than Areum, if that is indeed what she is doing.

At just sixty-six minutes, Grass (reportedly, the title does not really mean anything) is definitely a shorty from Hong, but it still provides sufficient time for the characters to get good and drunk on soju. He also manages to burrow quite deeply into their psyches. It is almost like a Hong Sang-soo lightning round, in which he tries to introduce each character and establish the source of their psychological hang-ups with the greatest possible economy.

While these are familiar themes for Hong, it is rather fascinating to watch his muse Kim Min-hee playing something like his analog as the voyeuristic Areum. She also has the sort of churlish jealousy we would expect from Hong’s shallow make characters when she is confronted with the happiness of her younger brother and his fiancée. Likewise, Jung Jin-young is slyly charming as Kyung-soo the actor-screenwriter, who sort of represents the more confident and defiantly indulgent side of Hong’s persona.

Despite all the emotional baggage of its clientele, the Grass café looks like a wonderfully inviting place for some coffee and people-watching. It is a small Hong film, even by his talky, light-weight standards, but it has its merits. In fact, it might be one of the better films of his less playful, post-Yourself and Yours, inspired-by-scandalous-real-life-events period. Recommended for Hong’s admirers and patrons of sharply observed psychological drama, Grass opens this Friday (4/19) in New York, at the Metrograph.