Right Now, Wrong Then
Directed by: Sang-soo Hong.
Written by: Sang-soo Hong.
Starring: Jae-yeong Jeong (Ham Cheon-soo), Min-hee Kim (Yoon Hee-jeong).
Korean director Hong Sang-soo is one of the most prolific directors around – Right Now, Wrong Then is his 17th feature in just a 20 year career so far. I’m hardly a Hong expert – I’ve only seen a handful of his films – but I know enough to get why those who love his work do so, and why those who think he makes the same film over and over again, say that as well. That criticism is more or less true – much like it was for Eric Rohmer, one of Hong’s biggest influences. In a Hong film, you will almost assuredly have two people meeting – the man almost always a film director, the woman a local in a town that director is visiting an is unfamiliar with – and through the course of a long day, a lot of drinking and talking will be done, and things are not destined to work out for the couple. Hong doesn’t really make movies about the beginning of a long term love affair – instead, he usually makes films about those missed opportunities – those brief encounters you’ll remember forever, even though they only lasted a few hours.
Out of the Hong films I have seen, his latest, Right Now, Wrong Then is far an away my favorite. It’s really two films, or perhaps more accurately, two different versions of the same film – which resets after an hour with the two main characters, and tells the same story again – although this time with some differences. Sometimes those differences are subtle – the same words being spoken, with different vocal inflections for instance, as which happens with the first time director Ham (Jae-yeong Jeong) meets a young woman named He-jeong (Min-hee Kim). In the first meeting, she seems to be flirting with the director – who is clearly flirting with her. In the second, she seems almost standoffish – that this man is bothering her, but she’s too polite to say that (and he seems oblivious). It would be too simple, I think, to describe these two halves as first his perspective, and then hers – because Hong gives no indication that is the case here. Instead, he’s doing something trickier – showing how the exact same two people can meet twice, and then have things go in different directions. The first one ends in anger, the second in melancholy for what might have been. For all the differences between the two segments, it’s really a question as to whether or not the director lies which determines the course of the film.
The film is clearly Hong’s from the outset – it has his trademark long shots, and many zooms (he’s one of the only filmmakers using zooms this way, and given how effective it is, you have to wonder why more don’t do it). In a Hong film, small gestures are important, and they are really important here as well – more so than normal, given that the differences between the two segments are part of the point of the movie, and some of them are tough to spot.
In the first segment, Ham is a liar, who is also clearly trying to pick Hee-jeong up. He flatters her about her artwork, tells her how pretty she is, gets her drunk – all before he reveals he is a liar, in a way that I don’t think he realizes. The segment ends the next day at the film festival, where he is presenting his film, and giving a Q&A afterwards, and he is, to be blunt, a jerk. In the second segment, Hee-jeong is more in control of herself – more purposeful and confident. And, for his part, Ham is much more honest – this leads to an incredibly awkward moment where he criticizes her art, but it’s a real moment. He also doesn’t lie about the thing that get her really angry in the first part. The film ends, again, at the film festival – but on a sadder, less angry note. You don’t much like Ham in the first half – and Hee-jeong seems too much adrift. In the second part, you like both of them. The performances by the two leads are hugely important in this film – and it also shows growth for Hong, who in the past could be accused of having really interesting male characters, and uninteresting female ones. That’s not true here.
Is Right Now, Wrong Then just a stylistic exercise though? An experiment that Hong is conducting just to see if he can? Is it a gimmick? To a certain extent, sure. But then again Christopher Nolan’s Memento is clearly a gimmick, as is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – it’s how the filmmakers execute those gimmicks that matters. While Hong’s film is clearly not quite in that league, it’s a very good film – the best of his work I have seen.