Hong Sang-soo's cinema looks more and more like a theater. He speaks only of play and illusion. Once his mysteries vanished, Grass his fifteenth film in ten years, thus gives the wonderful impression of having attended both a show and its rehearsals, both having been, by a magic proper to the cinema, that is to say, editing, more or less simultaneous – something impossible to repeat on a real scene. Characters intersect and rub shoulders in a decor that seems like theater (a cafe at the end of an alley, a restaurant, the alley outside), real-fake couples have things to reproach themselves, sitting in front of cups or soju glasses and, in the middle of them, a young woman writing alone at a table on her computer. She may be lying in fragments of the conversations she spies on, unless of course all these characters have come out of her imagination: we do not know if she is listening to them or if she is inventing them. The men are all comedians, the women write, but the general effect could be that of a troupe of actors (especially since they are regulars of the Hong Sang-soo films), who would be doing their scales and try things, including in a beautiful scene where a young woman (Kim Saebyuk) goes up and down a staircase without reason, until finally a smile appears on his lips. Theater as this couple seen from the corner of the eye photographed in period costumes in the alley: look at us play, they seem to say, we have fun.
Perhaps this reading, which resolutely disregards the details of the plot, is inspired by another reading, concomitant, of Jacques Rivette's recently published critical writings (1), the filmmaker declaring: "All the films are on the stage, there is no other subject." But we had thought about it two years ago already Yourself and Yours, whose economy seemed to be based on the use of cinematographic techniques substituting for ancient theatrical processes (disguises, misunderstandings, addresses to the viewer …), in order to deliver a romantic comedy with a Shakespearean approach.
With the brief Grass (1:06), it is even more economy that we must speak but extreme frugality, a kind of precipitate Hong Sang-soo method, condensed to a limit. Either skits where the evoked plot is never developed, a vaporous black and white (not the deep one of the Next day), and shots that do not even bother to give a face to each of the staged characters. So this colleague of a professor of suicide: he is first filmed from behind, the camera then sliding towards the shadow of his silhouette on the white wall, the simplicity and the obviousness of the process taking the breath away.
The shadow and the ghosts, the impermanence of everything, is the subject of the theater and it is the intention of Grass It is about a man and a woman having died, and the epilogue will see on the screen pictures of the now empty coffee of every human being. The dry and confusing approach of the film is then diluted in an extraordinary melancholy, whose richness is to probe our relation to the illusion: it is what allows the shaping of the transient, the dreams grasping the life like nothing of other. Puck's words at the end of Dream of a summer night ("Shadows, if we have displeased …") then cross the mind.
The permanent unveiling of the illusion is reinforced by the skilful use of the excessive and omnipresent soundtrack, the unseen coffee maker spreading at full volume a best-of European classic (Schubert, Wagner, Offenbach …) and a strange version of the country anthem Oh Susannah. The music removes, mocks or takes turns, recalling that the film is not fooled by what it is doing. And the ultimate moving scene, meeting all the characters at the same table, seen from outside the cafe, gives nothing to hear that a hubbub of laughter and warmth – life, in its menus and beautiful details .
We must wait until the very last shot, at the end of the credits, to contemplate again the small leaves of grass that opened the film, flickering in the wind, derisory and beautiful in their plastic planter, all alike and all unique, "Nothing less than the toil of the stars". In extremis, Grass turns into a poignant memento mori.
(1) Jacques Rivette, Critical texts, at Post-editions, 480 pp., 24 €.
Grass of Hong Sang-soo with Kim Min-hee, Jung Jin-young, Kim Saebyuk … 1:06.