Director: Hong Sang-soo
Stars: Kim Min-hee, Jung Jae-young, Youn Yuh-jung
Here’s a thing. While I voraciously devour new movie experiences, I love to re-watch ones I’ve seen, too. To have those experiences again, or to be surprised by how memory shaped or changed them. To discover anew. There’s comfort in the re-watch. Security. But wouldn’t it also be magnificent if, somehow, the films themselves changed? Loosed themselves from the reel of recorded images and took on a life of their own, different every time? Hong Sang-soo hasn’t managed to create such magic or trickery, but with Right Now, Wrong Then he’s come closer than most.
It’s a chilly winter’s day in Suwon. Arthouse film director Ham Cheon-soo (Jung Jae-young) is a day early to give a screen talk on one of his features. Killing time, he visits a temple, having spied a pretty young woman named Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee). On the steps of the blessing hall he makes an overture to her, the two get chatting and go for coffee. Yoon reveals she is a painter and invites Ham back to her studio, where he is complimentary of her work. From there the two go for sushi and plentiful soju.
Night draws in and the two – now drunk – go for a nightcap with a group of Yoon’s friends. When Ham belatedly reveals that he is married, Yoon grows cross and asks him to leave. The next day, Ham, grouchy and hungover, has a bad experience at the screen talk. With an hour having passed, the story seems over.
But, following another title card, the story starts over. But there are subtle changes. An opening scene between Ham and his assistant Bora (Ko Asung) is not repeated. Ham’s spotty narration – a previous fixture – is missing. Director Hong chooses differing angles on his scenes and, as we effectively re-watch the story, a slightly different meet-cute plays out. This time there’s a slight favouring of Yoon’s perspective. And more honesty between the two of them.
Ham tells Yoon of his marital situation much earlier; early enough to save the evening. He’s also more honest about her painting; instead of flattering her with a soundbite from his own repertoire, he critiques the piece and mildly angers her in doing so. Still, it garners more respect. Because of these adjustments, the evening runs longer, and Ham walks Yoon home in the freezing early hours. They part on a kiss and, the next day, the screen talk is a success. Yoon even turns up to see the next showing and the two share a pleasingly downplayed little coda.
There’s something pretty ballsy in asking an audience to sit through the ‘same’ story twice in one sitting, but Hong’s abilities and his actors’ charms mean that it doesn’t even register as a begrudged request. On first approach it feels like a test or game; spot the difference. Narration aside, Hong doesn’t mess with his form; both versions make use of long takes, simple yet handsome set-ups and his trademark sudden zooms. But in offering us alternate versions of the same 24 hours, Right Now, Wrong Then prods slyly at a few doors (not least the never-more-popular idea of a multiverse).
Considering he messes up pretty badly first time around, are we witnessing a wish fulfillment on the part of Ham? Has he willed himself a Groundhog Day-style do-over? If it is, his second run is not without blunders (drunkenly undressing to the shock of strangers). Still, having generally fared better with Yoon, is this the end of the cycle? There’s nothing here to suggest as such. Hong doesn’t tilt to the mechanisms of Hollywood fantasy. There is no sense of déjà vu exhibited by his characters.
Thus we’re steered toward the idea of endless variations, of limitless parallel universes in which every choice or action splinters the world out into further potentialities. These are just two examples. Considered this way, it’s remarkable how resilient fate or destiny are. Ham still visits all the same places and, by the end of this little adventure, his onward journey remains the same. Right Now, Wrong Then lightly suggests that, irrespective of our dalliances and diversions along the way, we’re all set on certain paths. The only significant change is the outcome for Yoon. Is it enough to be considered seismic? Who’s to say how her encounter with Ham – and his art – ripples out further into her future.
Set aside the mechanics of how or even why – for these things are arguably immaterial to the piece – and there’s something more fundamental of interest to Hong. Nuance of performance. I’m reminded of Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, in which both Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina share the role of Conchita, interchanging appearances and even switching within the space of a single scene. While much can – and has – been made of how it enhances the film’s themes of obsession and objectification, Bunuel’s reasoning for the choice was disarmingly simple; he couldn’t choose between the two actors.
By having his one-act play performed and then performed again with mild adjustments, Hong seems, to these eyes, to be reveling in the act of performance and decision. Playfully enjoying the choices made by those only moderately within his control. The length of many of the takes here suggests that both Kim Min-hee and Jung Jae-young have been afforded quite a long leash by their director, and that they’ve been encouraged to even improvise within limits. The scenes at the sushi restaurant feel particularly loose and natural in this regard, with both actors teetering with the warped reactions that occur when there’s a little alcohol in the mix.
Considering Hong’s broader filmography – which is made up significantly of wryly funny slice-of-life dramas occurring on a miniature scale, usually over beers or soju – this interpretation of what’s most important to Hong feels right, as opposed to positing over quasi sci-fi mechanics. Right Now, Wrong Then is a playful exercise in micro-changes in response and reaction. It relishes the accidents in conversations and observes (as many of his films do) the ways in which modern South Korean men and women interact and view one another.
In both scenarios Ham codifies Yoon quickly, praising her as ‘cute’ or ‘beautiful’, but it is how these compliments are framed that adjusts Yoon’s willingness to either accept and reciprocate, or view them with caution. In Hong’s cinema men are particularly fallible and liable to run themselves into trouble. Right Now, Wrong Then shows just how easily such stumbles occur. And while the second half displays an overall more positive outcome, it isn’t as nearly as binary as the title suggests. As in real life, we have to navigate a constant midway.
And while all of this adds juice to the experience of watching the film, it is those central performances and the chemistry between the two leads that endures the most. Hong capturing a little natural snowfall in his closing moments is magical, too. But it is the combination of his sensibilities and those of Kim Min-hee and Jung Jae-young that keeps me repeating. A film about repetition that rewards those infrequent but joyous re-watches.
Right Now, Wrong Then doesn’t presently have a physical UK release. I’m hoping that one or, better still, a comprehensive boxset of Hong Sang-soo’s prolific efforts makes it to our shores soon.