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)

Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Jeong Yoon-chul, 2017)

Warriors of the Dawn posterSome might say a king is the slave of his people, but then again he is a very well kept slave even if he is no more free than a serf at the mercy of a feudal lord. Warriors of the Dawn (대립군, Daeribgoon), set in 1592 during the short-lived Japanese invasion, takes this idea to its heart in playing up the inherent similarities between the oppressed poor who are forced to impersonate the sons of wealthy men too grand for the battlefield, and the Crown Prince unwillingly forced to impersonate the King who has abandoned his people and run away to China to save his own skin. Though the Prince is young and afraid, with the help of his resentful mercenary brethren he begins to find the majesty buried inside himself all along but crucially never forgets what is like to feel oppressed so that he might rule nobly and fairly, unlike his more selfish father.

The tale begins with Tow (Lee Jung-Jae) – a “Proxy Soldier”, one of many from the Northern borderlands where the living is hard. Sons of feudal lords need not risk their lives on the battlefields while there is money to spend and so they buy the service of young men from poor families to stand in for them. The men take the name of the man they’re supposed to be but if they die, their family must send a replacement to serve out the remaining time or pay back the money that was given to them. At this point Tow’s main problem is the Jurchen rebels who’ve decided to live life their own way outside of the system of class hierarchy currently in place in feudal Korea.

The Japanese, however, are pressing on and making gains towards the capital. The King decides to flee, hoping to reach China where the Ming Emperor may be minded to help them. He cannot, however, simply abandon ship and decides to divide the court with the left behind contingent headed by his son, Crown Prince Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-goo). Gwang-hae is young and inexperienced. Not having had a good relationship with his father, he’s mystified as to why he’s suddenly been given this “honour” but together with a selection of advisors he’s sent on a journey to found a second court at Gonggye, picking up scattered forces along the way. This brings him into contact with Tow and his contingent who become his main defenders.

Having lived a life inside the palace walls, Gwang-hae knows nothing of war or fighting and has brought a selection of books with him hoping to learn on the job. His ineptitude is likened to that of a young recruit to the band of Proxy Soldiers who has been forced to join on the death of his father but has no training and is too squeamish to kill, requiring Tow to come to his rescue as he later does for Gwang-hae. Tow is a born soldier yet reluctant, fully aware that he no longer exists and should he die another man with no name will step into his place with nary a pause. He continues to fight because he has no choice but he also feels an intense bond of brotherhood to his fellow men, something which later extends to Gwang-hae once his latent nobility begins to emerge.

Gwang-hae’s central conflict is between his advisors who council him towards austerity, and his deeper feelings which encourage him to sympathise with the ordinary people he meets along the way whose lives are being ruined thanks to the government’s failure to protect them. As it turns out, Gwang-hae is also low-born, in a sense, and therefore has inherited something of the common touch which separates him from the aloofness of his father. Though he is constantly told to make the “rational” choice he refuses – ordering troops to stop when they attempt to extort food from starving peasants, insisting on evacuating a village to safer ground, and then finally becoming a warrior himself in order to defend his people when no one else would.

Gwang-hae is, perhaps, a warrior for a new dawn and a flag that men like Tow can follow in the quest for a better world in which each man can keep his own name and fight for his own cause rather than that laid down for them by men with money or power. Despite the potential for a more urgent argument, Jeong mostly falls back on standard period aesthetics with overly familiar narrative beats heavily signposted by a subpar script. Warriors of the Dawn cannot decide whether it’s a film about catching the conscience of a king or the noble sacrifice of would be revolutionaries, failing to lend the essential weight to its duel arcs of rebirth and coming of age all of which makes for a long, hard march towards an inevitable conclusion.


Screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2017.

International trilogy (English subtitles)