‘I’m not a writer, I’m just writing,’ is a telling line from Hong Sang-soo’s delicate miniature of a film, a conversation piece that ploughs a highly individual furrow. Screening in the UK as part of the touring London Korean film festival, Grass has a unique structure that could easily be adopted by any streaming service; giving actors time and space to create vivid characters in a simple location; in essence, a hang-out movie played out through duets.
In this café we find Areum, played by Kim Min-hee, sitting at her laptop, listening into to conversations. A man and woman discuss someone recently deceased, and she berates him for his lack of feeling. An actor tries unsuccessfully to find someone to work on his screenplay, while another seeks a home. A grieving man seeks some kind of justice for a friend who has ended his own life after being spurned. Areum takes all of this in, as does the audience, before getting dragged into the stories herself.
Of course, there’s a reflexive quality to this; is the girl listening in to these conversations, or is she inventing them? A key moment comes when we see another female writer indecisively up and down a staircase; she’s seeking release from something holding her in place, but what, and how? It’s possible to read the film as describing a male-female divide, but the stories are not schematic enough for such a simple meaning, and the way they cross over towards the end reduces any sexual, political meaning and creates a welcome surge of warmth.
Shot in black and white, and with long static takes, Grass isn’t for everyone, but it’s a hugely rewarding film that might appeal to those mesmerised by the possible worlds featured in Chunking Express. While the presentation is very different, both films rejoice in the ways that lives, troubled as they may be, intersect and grow like blades of grass. This is a tiny but beautiful film, barely an hour in length, but well worth seeking out. Even the description offered by the google search engine captures the right mood, almost like an extended haiku.
‘In the corner of a small café, Areum types on her laptop. At the tables around her, other customers enact the various dramas of their lives: A young couple charges each other with serious crimes, an old man tries to rekindle a flame with a younger woman, and a narcissistic filmmaker works to put together his next project. Is she merely writing what she hears? Or is she hearing what she has written? As the dramas inside the café unfold, the plants outside grow taller.’
Grass is screening at the London Korean Film Festival runs from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on the annual UK tour 18th-24th November. The festival tours to: Edinburgh Film House, Watershed Cinema Bristol, Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre, Manchester HOME, Nottingham Broadway Cinema, until 24th November 2019. Further details at http://koreanfilm.co.uk/