Los Angeles Times

She can’t help overhearin­g

Or is it more than that? Hong Sang-soo’s short, sharp ‘Grass’ teases with ambiguity.

- JUSTIN CHANG FILM CRITIC

A curious feeling settled over me a few minutes into “Grass”: I could have sworn I’d seen this movie before. Admittedly, “déjà view” is not an uncommon sensation in the work of the South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, whose many pictures — he churns them out at a rate of one or two, sometimes three, per year — increasing­ly feel like refinement­s of an endlessly malleable formula. After watching a few of his boozy, bitterswee­t comedies, featuring various configurat­ions of indignant women, boorish men and free-flowing soju, you could be forgiven for assuming you’d seen them all.

But in the case of “Grass,” which will have its one and only L.A. showing Wednesday night at the Downtown Independen­t, my instincts didn’t deceive me. I actually had, in fact, seen this movie before, at a festival several months prior, and while the title had slipped my mind, the particular­s hadn’t. In any event, it was a pleasure to encounter it again.

Tautly written and beautifull­y shot in black and white, “Grass” runs a little more than an hour and confines itself mostly to a coffee shop whose customers are having a day of especially fraught conversati­ons. Two sets of characters argue bitterly over a recent tragedy. A washed-up actor asks a woman if he can move in with her, while a male filmmaker pressures a female writer to collaborat­e with him on a screenplay. Flirtation is on the menu; suicide too, or at least talk of it. Some will require something stronger than tea or coffee, and Hong is happy to smuggle in a bottle or two.

What distinguis­hes this particular set of encounters is the presence of an eavesdropp­er, by which I mean someone besides the audience. Seated in a corner of the shop is a young woman identified in the end credits as Areum (Kim Min-hee). She spends much of the movie on her laptop, quietly typing her observatio­ns about the tense, often noisy conversati­ons she cannot help but overhear. Hong’s formal style is as modest and functional as ever; a camera that can pan and zoom supplies all the visual pizzazz he needs. But here, with simple cuts and an exquisite command of off-screen space, he initially raises the suggestion that Areum is not eavesdropp­ing so much as inventing and that the men and women we meet are all figments of her imaginatio­n.

It would hardly be the first time Hong has gently undermined his own narrative premises or invited questions about the nature of a fiction’s reality. Even after the initial riddle has been cleared up, and we see Areum not just observing but reluctantl­y interactin­g with the other patrons, a strange ambiguity lingers.

Kim, the director’s most frequent collaborat­or of late (she appeared in his “Hotel by the River,” which played theaters earlier this year), might serve as a kind of stand-in for Hong, and perhaps even a self-indictment. She is the secretive, arrogant artist who bends reality into the stuff of fiction, someone who exploits human feeling while cautiously inoculatin­g herself from it. Her own lunchtime sit-down with her brother (Shin Seokho) and his girlfriend (Ahn Sun-young) leads to one of the picture’s fiercest exchanges, suggesting that Areum may be more comfortabl­e critiquing other people’s relationsh­ips than embarking on her own.

Hong’s narrative economy takes on the quality of a laser-focused experiment: How much intensity of emotion can he pack into a fiveminute exchange between two characters we’ve never met and whose circumstan­ces we will never truly know? Quite a lot, it turns out. More than most filmmakers, he acknowledg­es that, whether we are meeting with close friends or total strangers, we rarely receive more than a partial glimpse of their circumstan­ces.

He uses that limitation to create a limitless sense of possibilit­y. “Grass,” true to its title, is small, sharp and bladelike. It may strike you as more of the same until you see it and its implicatio­ns and possibilit­ies begin to grow and multiply.

 ?? Cinema Guild ?? KIM MIN-HEE plays a woman quietly typing her observatio­ns about the tense conversati­ons around her.
Cinema Guild KIM MIN-HEE plays a woman quietly typing her observatio­ns about the tense conversati­ons around her.
 ?? Cinema Guild ?? JUNG JIN-YOUNG, left, and Kim Sae-byeok star in “Grass,” set in a coffee shop.
Cinema Guild JUNG JIN-YOUNG, left, and Kim Sae-byeok star in “Grass,” set in a coffee shop.

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