Grass (풀잎들, Hong Sang-soo, 2018)

Grass poster 1You don’t meet nice girls in coffee shops, at least according to the melancholy narrator of a Tom Waits song recalling the flighty lover too free spirited for his wholesome hometown. Like one of the rundown dive bars in Waits’ conceptual universe, the cafe at the centre of Hong Sang-soo’s Grass (풀잎들, Pul-ip-deul) attracts its fair share of lonely drinkers looking for somewhere quiet to pour out their sorrows. Ostensibly a tale of simple eavesdropping abetted by the presence of a laptop, Hong’s narrative is at his most defiantly reflexive as it forces us to question the order of its reality and, in passing, our own.

Unnamed until the closing credits, Areum (Kim Min-hee) sits in a quiet cafe, tucked away in a corner tapping on her laptop and convincing herself she is an invisible observer of the world around her. Listening in on the various conversations of the other customers, she waxes philosophical on life, love, death, and distance by means of a beautifully poetic interior monologue but tells a fellow patron that she is not a writer, only writing, sort of a diary, but not a diary, something unusual for now. The irony is that though Areum feels herself to be far removed from those she is observing, they often complain that they feel “watched” or at any rate anxious under her intense yet abstracted gaze, sometimes challenging her but backing down when faced with her almost total lack of interest in interaction.

The patrons, almost echoes of themselves, are comprised of three couples – one in youth, one middle-age, and one approaching their twilight years. The men drink something cold in a tall glass with a straw, and the women something warm from a pleasantly round cup and saucer. Each of the men is an actor, while at least one of the women is a writer, though all of their conversations have their particular quality of awkwardness with the men largely trying to extract something from the women be it love, or forgiveness, or relief.

Finding herself in an awkward situation familiar to any woman who’s ever tried to work in a coffee shop on her own, Areum is approached by the middle-aged actor (Jung Jin-young) apparently trying to write a screenplay, and propositioned for advice. Having tried and failed to lure his wily writer friend (Kim Sae-byuk) on a 10 day retreat to “collaborate”, he asks Areum if he can come and “observe” her. She turns him down by saying she has a boyfriend, only for the actor to ask to talk to him for his permission, to prove he’s “not some kind of strange guy”.

The older actor (Gi Ju-bong), meanwhile, casually tells his companion (Seo Young-hwa) that he’s recently come out of hospital following a suicide attempt after trying to kill himself for love. Trying to move the conversation on, she tells him that she’s recently moved to a small house near the mountains, but realises her mistake when he fixates on the incidental detail that she’s got a spare room. Brushing off her reticence about a roommate, he repeatedly states that he’s got nowhere else to go in the hope that, as Areum says in her caustic voiceover, she will take pity on him and allow him to live the life of Riley on her dime. The friend is clearly distressed, she doesn’t want this man in her house (her equally strained looks when someone else tries to offer him a room suggest she’s reason to believe he’s trouble) but feels obliged to keep apologising for her refusal to acquiesce to his quite unreasonable request.

According to the maybe fiancée of Areum’s brother, men are cowards when it comes to pain or the need to end things. Areum seems to agree, but has a fairly cynical view on the entirety of human relationships, berating the pair for irresponsibly intending to marry on “love” alone. “We only loved each other” another sad young woman insists while harangued by a drunk middle-aged man intent on blaming her for the suicide of her late lover, neatly reversing the dynamics of the young couple from the cafe arguing about their shared sense of guilt over the death of a friend.

Areum wonders if it’s possible to fall in love with an innocent heart if you’re carrying the weight of someone else’s death. “You insignificant things” she warns the youngsters newly in love “you’ll die someday”, neatly ignoring the fact that so will she. Or perhaps this world will die with her. We begin to wonder if any of this is real or merely a series of manifestations of Areum’s cafe musings, reconstructions of the lives of others imagined from snippets overheard from adjacent tables. Adjacent tables is where Areum’s preferred to be, observing not partaking, a lonely ghost in this haunted cafe where lost souls come to ease their burdens. Yet, finally her resistance crumbles. She accepts an offer of soju and joins the gathering, abandoning her lofty pretensions of distance for a taste of togetherness. “In the end people are emotions…And I long for them now” she realises. “Is it real? It would be nice if it were”.


Grass was screened as part of the 2019 London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Hong Sang-soo, 2017)

on the beach at night alone posterIt might be unkind to suggest that Hong Sang-soo has essentially been remaking the same film for much of his career, but then again his most characteristic approach is one of re-examination, taking one event and turning it around to see how things might have played out differently if fate had only been kinder. On the Beach at Night Alone (밤의 해변에서 혼자, Bamui Haebyunaeseo Honja) eschews Hong’s usual repetitions, but zooms in deeper on its protagonist’s agonising emotional crisis as she attempts to deal with the fallout from a passionate yet inadvisable affair with a married director which threatens to destroy not only her personal life but also the professional in conservative Korean society. The elephant in the room is, of course, that lead actress Kim Min-hee and the film’s director Hong Sang-soo were themselves involved in a messy affair which scandalised their home nation, forcing the lovers abroad and away from media speculation but perhaps not from the uncomfortable questions surrounding their relationship.

Divided into two parts shot by different cinematographers, the film begins in Hamburg where well known actress Young-hee (Kim Min-hee) has travelled to visit a friend, Jee-young (Seo Young-hwa), to clear her head and get away from all the fuss at home. Jee-young has been living in the city for a few years since her own marriage ended – like Young-hee she came to visit a friend and subsequently decided to stay. Young-hee thinks perhaps she could do the same but is surprised when her friend reacts negatively to the idea of her moving in. The two women chat and try to talk out Young-hee’s ongoing indecision and emotional turmoil while she waits to see if her married film director lover will really come to Hamburg to meet her as he says he will or lose his nerve at the last moment.

The second half picks up some time later with Young-hee (presumably the same Young-hee or at least a woman with a very similar backstory) in a cinema watching a film. She’s gone home to Korea and to her tiny seaside hometown rather than the harsh streets of Seoul. Whilst there she runs into a series of old friends, many of whom have also boomeranged back from the big city, finding it relentless and unforgiving in its unrealistic expectations of their desire for success. Young-hee is just as mixed-up as she was in Hamburg, but her collection of friends prove less reliable sounding boards than the world weary yet perceptive Jee-young.

Hong’s films have often revolved around self-centred, neurotic men who treat women badly while the women remain exasperated yet resigned and only occasionally hurt. Digging deep, Hong makes an effort to look at something from the other side in painting a picture of the real emotional damage done by the kinds of affairs his usual protagonist may engage in (though to be fair most of protagonists are eventually rebuffed by their objects of affection). Kim’s nuanced performance is raw and painful. Hurt and brokenhearted, Young-hee is angry with her former lover but still, she misses him, wonders how he is, hopes he’ll be alright but also, in a way, that he won’t.

Young-hee is a mess of contradictions – she says she won’t wait and then she waits, she says she won’t drink and then she does (to excess), she says she’s overly direct yet she consistently avoids speaking directly, she says harasses people and messes everything up but all she seems to do is isolate herself and avoid connection, she goes to Hamburg to escape and then feels trapped. Jee-young, a little older, seems to have pinned herself down but says she feels somewhat jealous of Young-hee’s youth, her confidence and capacity for desire. There is a melancholy quality to Jee-young’s conviction that she is “the kind of person who lives alone”, but she harbours no resentment towards her former husband, only a mild sense of regret in having wasted his time. Young-hee may be filled with desire, but has no idea what for.

On the Beach at Night Alone shares its title with a poem by Walt Whitman which, like many of Whitman’s poems, is essentially about the interconnectedness of all things and overwhelming sensation of suddenly feeling a part of a great confluence of existence. It is in that sense ironic as Young-hee and many of her friends continue to feel isolated and alone, playing it safe and avoiding the risk of true connection only to find settling for the sure thing more painful than the emotional implosion of Young-hee’s daringly bold affair of the heart. A night on a beach alone affords her the opportunity of sorting things out, if only in her head, finally learning to stand up and walk away towards an uncertain, but hopefully self-determined, future.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

Trailer (English subtitles)