Updated: Apr 20, 2019
Forgive this brief moment of self-indulgence, but if there’s one lesson I learned as a film student that bears repeating, it’s that cinema is inherently voyeuristic, offering audiences a uniquely intimate glimpse into lives in progress. Several directors have turned this facet of the medium into a central theme—Alfred Hitchcock and Chantal Akerman are the most notable examples that spring to mind—but few movies have whittled it down to its essential core quite as elegantly as Hong Sang-soo’s Grass, currently screening at Metrograph.
The story couldn’t be simpler: our heroine sits at the corner table in a cozy cafe, eavesdropping on her fellow customers as she busily types away at her laptop. And while she’s watching them, we watch her, privy to her innermost thoughts and judgments… with the exception of those rare occasions when she becomes the primary subject. Though the narrative doesn’t follow a traditional plot structure, each of the conversations she overhears revolves around its own miniature conflict; the dialogue is intentionally banal and realistically circuitous, but is always carried along by a quietly powerful undercurrent of tension that gradually bubbles to the surface. Even the subtle, understated visual style brilliantly conveys the act of observation; the camera remains predominantly static, panning back and forth only to keep track of which character is currently speaking—thus mimicking the natural motion of the viewer’s eyes (as opposed to being “motivated” by movement in the frame, as most formal textbooks would insist is “proper”).
Best of all, since the running time clocks in at a lean sixty-six minutes, the slow, deliberate pace never overstays its welcome.