Grass: Stone Purgatory, by Scott Nye
Hong Sang-soo’s rapid workflow requires him to plow ahead with whatever he has in each moment. Churning out an average of two films each year for the past five years, he’s well past the point of writing scripts ahead of time, but not yet at the point of pure improvisation. He films in sequence, writing new pages each day and giving them to his actors as the production proceeds. Most of his films are “about” this process in some abstract way, introducing certain turns in the story that wouldn’t occur to more carefully-designed films, and they often focus on filmmakers or actors stuck in similar life circumstances as his own. But very few of his films are about writers. It’s notable, then, that Grass focuses on a young woman at a coffee shop who writes down observations and accounts about the conversations people around her are having.
Areum (Kim Min-hee) at first seems quite reserved, saying little outside of the voiceover, which both recounts the conversation we’ve just heard – first a young man and woman having a fight about a friend of theirs who has just died, and to whose death the young man might have contributed; then about an aging actor desperate for a place to stay; then a middle-aged actor tries to convince a young writer to join him on a 10-day writing sabbatical – and adds her own observations to it about intonation, expression, and even her own assumptions or inventions as to what they might be inferring. When approached by the middle-age actor, who quickly tries to rope her into the writing vacation as well, she asserts that she’s not a writer, and is just keeping a sort of diary (only not a diary), and that she and her boyfriend are too shy to allow her to take a trip with another man.
We don’t see her boyfriend, if he even exists; we do see her brother, whom she berates (in front of his girlfriend) for considering marriage in a manner uncharacteristic of the shy girl she’s heretofore set herself out to be. Hong’s characters often have these sort of transformations, putting on one face to strangers and a very different attitude towards anyone they’re even on even slightly intimate terms with. Areum never has to see hers come into conflict the way many of his other characters have, but perhaps it’s still to happen somewhere beyond the coffee shop borders.
Classical music, another Hong staple, is heard throughout the film, only revealed about a quarter of the way through to be the actual music playing within the coffee shop; what once had seemed to be an uncommonly romantic touch now feels distancing, almost confrontational to the audience, but there’s something interesting about Hong placing his own musical taste on the unseen presence of the coffee shop owner, who’s said to be a fan of the genre. The owner also lets people sit around and talk all day, which speaks a bit to Hong’s own working method.
Like most of Hong’s work, there isn’t much of a lesson or conclusion to anything, and we’re left to make our own assumptions the way Areum does. She seems quite lonely, the writing she does a way of reaching out within herself and clarifying a world that’s less easy to control – she can’t tell her brother what to do, but she can invent lives and dynamics for these strangers. Areum is also the name of Kim’s character in last year’s The Day After; both it and Grass are filmed in black-and-white, and the former takes place amidst a small publishing house. One could almost imagine each film’s Areum to be the same person, Grass exploring the sort of prose with which The Day After’s might engage before, during, or after the events of that film. I’ve suggested before that Hong’s filmography has become something like an irregular TV show for the devoted cinephile, and while I hate to go all “fan theory” on a director who often repeats names, incidents, and conflict, it is intriguing nonetheless.
Hong’s turn toward black-and-white of late has been very fruitful. His other film this year, Hotel by the River, is one of his most beautiful. Grass has a different, much harder feel to it, but there’s more texture to it, a sort of density that makes each person and object feel carved out of cement. This creates an interesting contrast with the contemporary technology – MacBooks, smart phones, and cars – so that even one of Hong’s more densely-populated films still has an air of purgatory. Like Hotel by the River, his characters seem drawn to and stuck in the film’s main setting, and as in that slightly-earlier film, we never see the proprietor of their establishment. We only know what they can loosely recall. Is He God, or merely the director, and is there much of a difference in work of art anyway? This is all loosely-connected philosophizing, the sort of thing Hong’s loose cinema encourages. Have a seat, take in the air.