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Many auteur filmmakers are accused of making the same film over and over again, though few live up to that accusation as much as Korean arthouse darling Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day, In Another Country). This is not a negative thing per se, especially because playing around with repetitions and variations is an organic part of the director’s oeuvre, and also a recurring element within each single film. His latest, Right Now, Wrong Then (Jigeumeun matgo geuddaeneun teullida), consists of two parts, roughly an hour each, in which the same two characters meet and end up spending the same single day together, twice.
Taken separately, these two medium-length works would be diverting but also rather minor Hong, with their typical dry humor and observations about life and love. But taken as a single, 120-minute work, the small differences in the dialogue and attitudes of parts one and two reveal nothing less than the humanity, inner life and subconscious decision-making processes of the characters, turning the whole into one of Hong’s strongest features to date. This Locarno competition title is a must-see for festival audiences, though given its lack of arthouse star power a la Isabelle Huppert, who headlined the director’s 2012 drama In Another Country, a wider commercial breakout, including at home, might still prove elusive.
The film’s first 55 minutes play like a self-contained work that is, somewhat mischievously, actually titled Right Then, Wrong Now. It introduces the arthouse director Ham Chunsu (Jung Jae-young, in only his second Hong, after 2013’s Our Sunhi), who’s also occasionally heard in a voice-over that’s absent in part two. Chunsu is visiting the city of Suwon, just south of Seoul, where he’ll attend a post-screening discussion. Because of a scheduling snafu, Ham arrived a day early and has time to visit some of the city’s famous palaces. In the appropriately named “Blessing Hall,” he runs into Yoon Heejung (model-turned-actress Kim Min-hee, a newcomer to the Hongiverse), a young woman he earlier spied from his hotel window, and starts a conversation with the alluring stranger. She’s duly impressed when he reveals who he is: “You’re famous, I knew your face looked familiar!” she crows. Heejung herself isn’t well-known at all and describes herself, rather demurely, as “just someone who paints.”
The unlikely duo spends the rest of the day together. They first start talking over coffee, then move to her workshop, where she gets a little work done. Their conversation is then continued at a restaurant, where they have sushi and copious amounts of soju, before ending the night at an intimate get-together with friends in a bar. The Chunsu character is obviously semi-autobiographical, like many of Hong’s male leads, and there’s a lot of the auteur’s typically dry and low-key humor sprinkled throughout, like when Heejung reveals to Chunsu that she doesn’t “like to watch movies but people seem to praise your movies a lot.”
It’s one of the many examples of Hong’s economy as a filmmaker, since the line not only gets a laugh because the director (and the audience) has been under the impression she was a fan, but at the same time manages to suggest how people’s perceptions of one another are often distorted by misinterpretation or hearing what you want to hear (Heejung never actually said she had seen any of his films, just that she was familiar with his name and face). A seemingly throwaway, chuckle-inducing line thus cuts right to the heart of the material and suggests a possible way in which to read part two.
It’s clear the two have a connection, and once they’re on their way to finish their third bottle over dinner, Chunsu becomes very candid — in soju veritas, one might say — suggesting that, even though he doesn’t have a ring, he’d like to demonstrate his feelings for her. The night ends at a bar with a small gathering of Heejung’s friends before the girl heads home to her mother (Youn Yuh-jung), who berates her for her tipsy-girl behavior. In guise of a coda, the director attends his Q&A session the next day, thoroughly hung-over and making a scene when he’s asked an impossible question by the moderator (Yu Jun-sang, like Youn a familiar face from some of Hong’s previous films).
When part two — called Right Now, Wrong Then, like the whole movie — starts, much of the same day unspools again, though with small but crucial variations. The idea of juxtaposing different possibilities is something that Hong has done before in films such as In Another Country, in which Huppert plays three versions of a fictional Frenchwoman in Korea named Anne, or in films such as Oki’s Movie and Our Sunhi, which play around with character perspectives.
Filmed, like most of Hong’s films, with a preference for static medium shots punctuated by sudden zooms, there are nonetheless slightly different camera setups in the two parts that subtly help underline the different character dynamics. What’s interesting is that part one has an intentionally somewhat pedestrian quality; it’s meant to illustrate a regular day-out-of-the-life of two individuals who happen to meet and spend not even 24 hours together. Why they do what they do and say what they say is of course heavily influenced by who they are, though, as with practically everyone, the reasoning behind their words and actions are only rarely explicitly stated. So when the events are replayed in the second part, the juxtaposition of the two halves allows audiences to gain a lot of insight into the two characters by observing familiar behavior but with crucial new bits of information that illuminate choices that were earlier left unexplained.
A prime example of this is a throwaway detail in part one, when Chunsu goes outside to smoke and Heejung doesn’t follow him. It takes place after he’s confessed he really likes her over dinner. The fact she avoids a tete-a-tete smoke might have an impact on what he decides to do next. Though, in part two, it becomes clear there’s a simple reason for her behavior that has nothing to do with his amorous confessions: she just quit smoking. Similarly, the reasons behind the phrasing of Chunsu’s declaration of love and his subsequent frustration in part one emerge only when his behavior is compared to what he decides to say and do in part two.
The film’s two halves are of course mutually exclusive, since these characters can only meet for the first time once, though by telling two versions of the same story, Hong beautifully uncovers the way in which behavior is influenced by infinitesimal little details that are habitually kept hidden, often unconsciously, though they dictate decisions and reactions all the time. And these small things can have big consequences; just watch the fallout of Chunsu’s different reactions to Heejun’s paintings, both immediately and especially in the scenes that follow, in which the knowledge about his opinions on her work seems to influence her view of the director and her desire (or not) to be with him.
Reportedly, the director shot and edited the first part, screened it for the actors and then filmed the second part with them in the same locations. The result is that part two feels like a more lived-in experience, not necessarily for the benefit of the actors, since their characters don’t know they’ve already lived through this scenario once before, but to better help the audience identify the tiny — but really huge — differences.
Production companies: Jeanwonsa Film Co.
Cast: Jung Jae-young, Kim Min-hee, Ko Ah-sung, Choi Hwa-jung, Seo Young-hwa, Kee Joo-bong, Youn Yuh-jung, Yu Jun-sang
Writer-Director: Hong Sang-soo
Producer: Kiom Kyoung-hee
Director of photography: Park Hong-yeol
Editor: Hahm Sung-won
Music: Jeong Yong-jin
No rating, 120 minutes
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