Getting Up and Getting By: Richard Billingham’s Ray and Liz and Hong Sang-soo’s Grass

Nicholas Forster
7 min readNov 5, 2018

When I was preparing to apply to college, I remember thinking that if any application asked me one of those “describe one of the most significant moments of your life and how it changed you” type questions, I was going to pull one over on the admissions committee. “It wasn’t but a single moment that shaped my life,” I imagined I would put down on the page in such disdain that you could almost see me lifting my finger in the air, “but rather the little things that happen to us every day. That is what shapes who we are.” The obnoxiousness of the context, attitude, and phrasing of that response doesn’t dim the fact that nearly a decade later, I still believe this generally to be true.

If on a larger scale culture is, as the critic Stuart Hall once claimed, the “dialectic between conditions and consciousness,” the smaller scale of my own consciousness was shaped every day by conditions that I repeatedly brushed up against as a suburban Northeast teenager at the turn of a new century. It was not that the little moments mattered the most or that the monumental events didn’t reroute life — rather, meaning was dispersed. In that diffusion, the magic of what it is to share space with other people, experience the sensitivity of another through art, or recognize how pain and happiness can coexist, made itself evident.That magic is what Richard Billingham and Hong Sang-soo capture in two films that have been making the rounds on the festival circuit over the last two months.

Set in West Midlands, England, Ray and Liz is a semi-autobiographical portrait of two parents wracked by personal struggles at a time of Thatcherite austerity. The welfare state has been dismantled, and when Ray is made “redundant” (the British equivalent of being laid-off) the family has difficulty keeping up their fly-filled apartment. Billingham has called the film a “love story” between its titular characters. If this is a love story it is an upsetting, if not unsympathetic one, as Ray and Liz fail to fully care for their two sons, Jason and Richard.

Where Ray and Liz focuses on the intricate pain that filters through a specific family, Grass tracks the little interactions that orbit a small café in Seoul where people come together and sometimes sneak in soju. Hong’s film floats around, but it is anchored by Areum, a young woman in the café who spends her time listening to other conversations and noting them (with requisite judgement) in Macbook. The audience is privy to the conversations which erupt around Areum, just as we are granted some access to her internal thoughts.

Ray and Liz (dir. Richard Billingham)

Ray and Liz and Grass construct worlds where significance is felt when the messiness of the past meets the present. Though characters have experienced significant events that disrupt, rupture and cause agony, those events (like the death of a friend or the abuse of a parent) are not the focus of these films. Rather, the characters exist in the aftermath when the dust has started to fall to the ground, but has not quite settled and when the possibilities of what could be imagined as different in the future, are not yet close enough to grasp. The pain, which seemed to strike the chord that the life might not go on, still resonates, even if it doesn’t envelop everything as it once did before. These are films about the challenge and beauty of getting up, getting by, and being fulfilled in the midst of shit.

In Ray and Liz, Billingham turns to the symbolic weight of the past lived presently. When the film begins, Ray pours brown liquid out of a 2-ish liter bottle and into a little cup. It is hard to recognize what this drink is. Is it tea? Well, it’d be a wretchedly lukewarm temperature if so. Is it soda? Well, it doesn’t seem to be especially carbonated. But maybe. Is it beer? Perhaps, but there is little foam and again, not much carbonation. Eventually, but without functioning as a manipulative turn, the film explains both the drink and the bottles they arrive in. This object, the brown liquid in a plastic bottle, gains gravitas as the movie turns to the past via a few flashbacks. The drink, and the tendency of Ray to pour the liquid to the lip of his cup before drinking, becomes almost mythic in meaning, even if it is never explicitly accounted for.

The little moments lure us in, even as they are surrounded by familial trauma. We see Liz playing with puzzle pieces a few times and this is but one moment that has an added stickiness: the scenario becomes more than an impression, but it remains less than unassailable reality. Within these memories, we watch Jason and Richard move throughout their ramshackle apartment with little questioning. They take all that is around them as a given, as stable. The lack of clothes or the occasional missed meal is just how life is and the closest escape valve is flickering on television, offering a little world to live in when the bigger world might swallow everything whole.

The manicured cinematography, production design, and composition come together with subtle performances to create a mood of stable instability. Billingham bookends the film with two images — an elderly Ray alone in a room and a close-up of a photograph of a younger Ray and Liz. By the end of the movie, the portrait overflows with contradictory meaning as we have witnessed their love, their dereliction, and their unintended abuse.

Billingham and Hong both create an atmosphere where individuals interact with one another in the most vicious ways. Sometimes that comes in sly comments, sometimes in the form of cutting wit to bring another down. Sometimes it takes shape in the absence of care or some form of neglect. These filmmakers don’t so much forgive those characters for their mistreatment so much as locate them within a world where one just tries to continue to move forward. Both filmmakers recognize, without fetishizing, the moments that fuck people up but don’t destroy them: some relationships are rarely healthy and some are never abusive. With sincerity, humor, and seriousness Grass and Ray and Liz represent those complicated moments when one’s politics or ideology doesn’t necessarily align with their actions, whether benign or shameful. Without stressing a cheerful humanism, the two films instead commit to portraying the every day, the catastrophic and the weird.

Grass (dir. Hong Sang-soo)

Hong lingers less in the past than Billingham, and he frames individuals and their relationships through long takes where we are left in an uncomfortable position between being an audience member watching live theater and being an omniscient fly on the wall. Of course, shot in black and white, we’re not merely sutured into the movie, but the café becomes a place we know. We recognize the usual customers and can define those who just happened to have stumbled into this hard-to-find place. People go there to create new memories, relive old ones and also collaboratively renegotiate the past.

Where Ray and Liz relies on expertly composed spaces (the walls are living — the wallpaper is torn just so to convey a just so sensitivity), Grass lingers within the space of the café. While we see multiple tables and exterior shots, the depth and space of the café is purposely withheld and there are periods when we are not quite sure just how close one group of people is to another. Even if they may be within earshot, we are left to wonder: would one group need to strain to hear another? Conversations don’t bleed into one another and Hong amplifies certain gestures and phrases that give us access into banal and momentous conversations between writers, actors, lovers, and those striving to get by. We may not listen to everything in the café but we are surrounded by people sharing a piece of themselves with one another.

When Grass leaves that space, we continue to see the little interactions that sustain people, as in a conversation between two young lovers who discuss marriage and what it means to know and care for someone. Perhaps the most poignant scene features a woman running up and down the stairs of her home. Hong’s camera waits as she repeatedly ascends and descends. Leaving the audience to watch for an uncomfortably long time, this is a private moment where a mundane, repeated act provides meaning, not for us, but for the character. Like an ever-jittering leg or the compulsion to pace, this is such a specific and seemingly meaningless act to anyone not taking part. It is purposefully opaque. Unlike the famous potato peeling scene in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, there is little meticulousness or contextualizing commentary; this is not a metaphor for some larger societal structure. This is a kind of self-possessed choreography where we see what it looks like for a character to be in the world by herself. This, too, is one of those moments where the little things shape a person’s life.

Ray and Liz and Grass are necessarily small in scope. While Billingham’s film homes in on the moments of early child rearing and the persistence of meaningful pain into the old age of its troubled lovers, Grass revels in the ways that people consistently remake their relationships, bringing the past with them in that remaking. In 2018 both films are gifts, not because they champion what it means to be alive but because they prod those knotty moments where people slide against the friction of normality, only beginning to disentangle their meaning upon future reflection.

--

--

Nicholas Forster

Nicholas Forster is a writer and Lecturer in African American Studies and Film & Media Studies at Yale University. Follow him on Twitter @NSForster