You 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”.
Original trailer (English subtitles)