Published Sep 12, 2015Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo makes movies about the filmmaking process. His main characters are filmmakers — often with proclivities for infidelity and alcoholism — that self-consciously discuss the art. Within this framework, there's often a sense that the film we are watching is the protagonist's creation: scenes repeat, characters modify their dialogue and there's a sense of improvement as the repetition progresses. His style is also quite simple. The dialogue is improvised and he typically uses long, static takes to capture extended conversations.
Right Now, Wrong Then is no exception to this format, except that it's divided into two equal halves, recounting the same encounter with two different outcomes. The premise is quite banal: Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong), a noted art director, spots an attractive young woman — Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee) — outside of her studio and starts conversation.
She's initially hesitant but warms up to him once she realizes who he is. Their conversation moves from this courtyard to a coffee shop to her art studio to a sushi restaurant to the home of an acquaintance. During the first half of the film, there's absolutely nothing of note about their discussion; it's unrelentingly saccharine and twee, amounting to little more than a series of compliments and flowery proclamations of affection. Both characters are portrayed in an ideal light — he, a bashful, romantic gentleman; she, a chaste artist looking for meaning in the world — making the entire exercise feel like an insincere demonstration of ideation and ego-stroking.
Around the midway point, we jump to a festival screening of Cheon-soo's latest film, wherein a critic suggests that the work doesn't have anything to say. From this point, Right Now, Wrong Then shifts in tone and intent almost entirely, revisiting the original meeting with a much thornier series of events.
Initially, it's small differences: Hee-jeong stated that she was a successful model that turned to painting to explore her inner self in the original conversation, but notes that she's a struggling housecleaner in this second incarnation. Later, when she shows Cheon-soo her art, rather than validate her sheepishly as he did the first time out, he notes that her work is very boring and conventional; something that likely stems from an insecurity that requires constant reassurance.
These differences, which manifest in deep-rooted character flaws, such as passive-aggressiveness, alcoholism and tactlessness, give this second attempt at character development demonstrated far more vitality and comedy. In a way, it seems that Sang-soo is criticizing the audience's need to have subtleties exaggerated for clarity. While the initial exchange is probably true to life, insomuch as most people put on a façade when attempting to impress someone, the latter is a representation of what might happen if people were completely open and honest.
Sang-soo is questioning the reality presented on film and the reality that we've come to expect. His observations about real life are that niceties and character attributes are often performed, which is challenging to communicate. If we take a closer look at the first storyline, all of these negative attributes and nasty comments are technically there, fizzling beneath the surface, but without someone pointing them out explicitly, our kneejerk reaction is much like that of the critic Cheon-soo is enraged by.
With this format — repetition with variation — Sang-soo is continually trying to communicate his perspective on cinema. While Right Now, Wrong Then doesn't exactly break new ground for the director, it does articulate his stance in a slightly different, rather snarky and irreverent manner, and it's a delight to watch.
(Jeonwonsa Film co.)