Grass (2018) starts as so many Hong Sang-soo films have, with a man and a woman sitting opposite one another, captured in unadorned and beautiful digital black and white in another slightly bland modern café, though few of his battle-of-the-sexes escalate so quickly to shouting, usually a lot of Soju has to be consumed first, and even then it’s a foggy, imprecise lashing out as opposed to these more cutting and direct strikes. His zooms, which have been sharpened and simplified over the years are here much faster and tighter; the camera swinging back and forth to keep up with it all. Then we cut to Kim Min-hee, she’s sitting alone and typing on her laptop, recording or perhaps constructing what we’ve just seen, it’s a familiar kind of formal trickery for Hong and though these structures have never been a puzzle to be solved, it’s especially so in Grass where the line between the real and imagined is so thinly rendered, often only separated by a pan from the couple to Kim, contained within the same shot, they bleed together; there are no defined puzzle pieces to organise. It’s a film so stripped down it almost becomes abstract, just a series of de-contextualised, potential imagined male-female conversations shot often against a pure white background, one shot even moves away from a coupe to one of their shadows, their rough, ghost-like shape.
It hardly matters if Kim is seeing these people or not, the difference between voyeurism and imagining isn’t so deep, it’s easy to watch someone like you’re writing them, filling in all the gaps with prejudices and fantasies, it’s hard not to; you can’t look at someone and just assume nothing, or else they’ll vaporise into an infinite cluster of traits and signifiers pointing in opposite directions. Even if Kim went over and spoke to them, away from her protective solitude, it wouldn’t be so revealing, any outward action, especially towards someone else, is a strange concoction of how the person sees themselves and how they want to be seen; it’s just another signifier, as impossible for the person themself to map as it is for her. And Kim isn’t exactly going in in the best of faith—how one is reading is as much a problem as what is being read, it’s two sets of clusters colliding—she admits that no one can know what this first couple’s feelings are but then goes on to wildly speculate that “the woman torments [the man]” because she is “seeking meaning of that death”, the suicide of a mutual friend that has come between them. And sometimes it isn’t so much unconscious fantasy spilling through as it is flat lies, when Kim talks about the writer (Jung Jin-young) who approached her to ask to observe her for a couple of days for “inspiration”, she stretches it from three days to ten, slipping outside the range of reasonable exaggeration, turning an overbearing but perhaps eccentric request into something altogether more twisted and melodramatic.
But her brother (Shin Seok-ho) and his fiancé (Han Jai) love it, the three of them laugh together; it’s the closest Kim ever gets with another character, as low as her guard can get under the comfortable protection of a kind-of lie. It’s as if effective storytelling—and effective writing—at least in terms of entertainment, requires smudging reality into a meaningfully different shape, Hong’s films can only be so honest because they are mundane, despite the formalist structures, there is a real focus on not filtering, on letting boring conversations play out, usually in a single shot, until the little glimmers of gold appear in the pan. He allows characters’ contradictions to lay, mirrored by the loud and incongruous music that plays over almost the entire film, comedic in both how mismatching it always is and in how straight it’s played, one character points out it’s diegetic, a strange choice by the café staff or management, and so it just keeps running uninflected, never responding to anything happening until it almost becomes ambient. Without an impulsive need to analyse or explain, the contradictions can settle, they can start make sense, to look like something whole.
Hong isn’t delusional about his place in all of this though, ever the scathing self-critic, he doesn’t see himself as some impartial observer, an artist looking down from up high, Jung, the writer—who complains about the repetition of his work, of course a famous trait of Hong’s work—sits outside the café and watches Kim as she watches a couple, projecting onto her as she is onto them. But at least she stays at her distance, she might be repurposing these private and intimate moments for her fantasy, but ultimately they speak only of herself, all that’s there is the projection, the shadows. He approaches and pesters her with the kind of beta-male chauvinism that was so common in Hong’s earlier, meaner films, with a request that would be pathetic if it wasn’t so deranged to call someone “good material”, when writing goes beyond the internal and steps into the real world, when observing becomes directing—he claims he wants to collaborate with Kim, but she retorts that writing should be done alone, maybe that it must—it’s not so much voyeuristic as vampiric.
Still Kim carries around those writing instincts, even if she acts them out in a less direct way, they still speak through her, in the one scene away from the café—clearly separated from the blurred lines of fantasy, and from the messy flailing of alcohol, made explicitly clear when Kim says it would have gone great with their food—her voyeuristic curiosity runs wild as if they were just another couple she was observing. First she asks seemingly banal questions that serve to point out that although her brother’s fiancé trained as an actress, she works as a stewardess—sometimes honest is just an excuse for cruelty, maybe that’s why Hong’s film have softened as he’s aged and matured—then she asks if the two of them want to get married and excoriates them after they awkwardly say yes, accusing them of irresponsibility as if they could have said anything else. Like the characters in a moralistic story they’ve been set up by the writer to fail, to be punished and either taught a lesson or made an example of. Writing is fundamentally solitary and so quite naturally leads to this kind of solipsism, where an apparent interest in other people is really just another kind of self-absorption, projecting yourself onto other people as a kind of violence, a rejection of their independent personhood.
Maybe suicide, a recurring theme in almost all the conversations Kim imagines, represents to her the ultimate unknowability of other people: it’s an act which obviously can’t be explained—if that would even help—and leaves everyone behind to carry these doubts and questions that will never fade. When Kim’s brother walks out the restaurant as she’s paying the bill, walking down the same streets at a distance, they argue but basically agree, they don’t understand each other and they probably can’t, then, in what seems like true cruelty, Kim turns this truism against him, questioning if he really knows his fiancé, but really, it’s an act of self-sabotage, a kind of metaphorical suicide, cutting herself off from all connection because she doesn’t believe it’s really possible, or won’t let herself believe because she’s too scared of getting hurt. She later admits that she’s jealous of her characters, even as she looks down on them, the desire still lingers underneath—after all a metaphorical suicide isn’t the same as a real one—as she stands alone in a side road she hears the only un-ironic piece of music in the whole film, a gentle voice somewhere off-screen sings “hand in hand, fingers locked […] why is your hand so warm inside mine? My heart is cold regardless”, like a Hank Williams song, the simple, clear words strip back all the complexities, all the structural ambiguities and interpersonal tangling, to leave only a pain so raw it’s hard to look at.
Maybe what Kim was writing was art, by imagining it all in a café, the most mundane of all places, she was showing the width and depth of human experience, that such personal dramas are playing out everywhere, that every person you pass is brimming with life and tragedy and drama, but when she returns to the café, it’s become pure wish fulfilment. Her character’s are all so much warmer and kinder, an actor who after a suicide attempt fell between the cracks, and was when we last saw him rejected a place to stay, now finds somewhere, and the first couple both admit to some fault in their friends death, in an almost comic level of reconciliation they even talk about going home together. But then she remembers that her roommate is still at home and basically it just wouldn’t work. It’s much like the scene in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921)—though in a much more mundane register—where The Tramp’s dream of being reunited with the titular child tears itself apart from the inside, devils come and destroy the heavenly version of their town where everyone has angel wings. Even pure fantasy can’t hold together, Kim can only fool herself so much and as The Tramp wakes back up on the doorstep alone, she sits alone, still typing frantically, as if trying to hold these pieces together any way that she can.
Then, a kind of miracle happens: one of Kim’s characters reaches out and talks to her, at their most facile and artificial they suddenly come to life—like Pinocchio turning from a puppet to a real boy—they say that since she’s already listening in, she might as well join them, but the comfort of isolation is stronger than the loneliness and she refuses, she says she prefers to eavesdrop. Through the window, far away from Kim’s narration and reasoning, we see yet another miracle—though one that seems far less natural despite its much smaller size—she changes her mind; she steps outside of herself and sits with them. Maybe this is another kind of suicide, a total recession into her fantasy world, cutting to photographs of the café empty makes it seem like a haunted place—her Brother’s comment that it had “no customers” was literal—but they also look a lot like pre-production photos, and Hong gently re-enters the frame. If this is a happy ending, it’s because he decided to have one, Kim is just another piece to be moved, she changed her mind because he directed her too, her decision to open back up to connection is literally untrue; she isn’t real. It’s an ending that’s as honest as a film can be, acknowledging it’s all a lie, all the fantasy of a director—not unlike the old Hollywood endings that so contradict the rest of the film, usually for political expediency, it only highlights the true meaning more—if it can ring true, it can only do so by ringing false too.