Fans of Hong Sang-soo’s films can feel reasonably confident anticipating what to expect from any new offering from the prolific South Korean writer-director: scenes of conversation in restaurants, characters drinking and fumbling toward love, men who often act like dolts, plots that sometimes repeat sequences with faint discrepancies. And yet, within these familiar tenets, considerable rewards can flourish when Hong is feeling particularly inspired, which is especially true with his latest film. The Hong trademarks are all there in Right Now, Wrong Then, but so is a newfound optimism and romantic glow. Rarely has he been such a crowd-pleaser while also being so bittersweet.
Right Now, Wrong Then’s narrative trick would seem like a formal breakthrough for many filmmakers, but with Hong, it’s par for the course. Ham (Jung Jae-young) is an art-house director in town to do a Q&A, but because he’s there a day early, he’s looking for something to do. Checking out the sights, he meets Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), an aspiring painter who doesn’t know his work but knows his name. (Essentially, she’s just impressed because he’s famous.) The first hour of the film, entitled “Right Then, Wrong Now,” follows them over the course of a day as they get to know one another. The second hour, called “Right Now, Wrong Then,” repeats the first half’s general outline, but with some slight, meaningful revisions.
In recent films such as The Day He Arrives and In Another Country, Hong has enjoyed playing a game of what-if, offering different variations of a story within the same film so that we can ponder how small shifts in mood or timing could significantly alter an interaction, a day, even a life. Unlike a film such as Rashomon, which builds its drama around how different characters can have radically different perspectives on the same events, Right Now, Wrong Then treats incidents as endlessly mutable—things didn’t work out this time, but what if he had said this or she hadn’t done that? And as opposed to a comedy like Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character keeps getting do-overs until he does everything “right,” Ham and Hee-jung aren’t aware of these parallel realities that Hong has crafted. They’ve only got one life to live, but we fortunate viewers get to observe two stabs at the same day. And, ultimately, who is to say what the “right” result would be, anyway?
Such a description of Right Now, Wrong Then might give the impression that Hong likes to indulge in cutesy, syrupy revelries about the whimsical randomness of life. Thankfully, his deceptively dispassionate movies never play that way, and with Right Now, Wrong Then in particular, his spare, naturalistic style pushes against such sentimentality. Using his preferred shooting strategy—long, static master shots that occasionally zoom in on one character—Hong deemphasizes his film’s fantastical elements, preferring that we focus on straightforward scenes in which ordinary people try to establish a bond.
In both halves of Right Now, Wrong Then, Ham is instantly smitten with Hee-jung, convincing her to join him for a meal, and then later a drink. It would be unfair to reveal too much of the conversation, but the film’s first hour doesn’t end entirely happily, and along the way we watch the missteps that may have caused the undesired outcome. When the second hour begins, we pay close attention to the subtle differences that start to take place—not because they automatically guarantee a successful romantic pairing, but because they suggest other ways to behave and respond when meeting someone for the first time.
Remarkably, though, the changes in the two halves don’t involve differing actions. (This isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where opening one door as opposed to another has major consequences.) Rather, the shift is in attitude and outlook. A character decides to lie in one version and not in the other. A character becomes infuriated by the other’s behavior in one scene but decides to brush it off the next time. In Right Now, Wrong Then, reactions are just as important as actions.
In both versions of the tale, Hong breaks out of the ruts that can hamper his lesser films. He’s made great comedy out of the drunken, lecherous louts that usually populate his stories, perpetually mocking dopey guys who are hopeless around women and barely able to take care of themselves. Alcohol serves a role in Right Now, Wrong Then, too, but Jung plays Ham with a warmth and vulnerability that hasn’t always been evident in Hong’s earlier protagonists. Ham can be pathetic, but there’s a refreshing compassion in this film that makes the character more nuanced, suggesting hidden depths that aren’t immediately apparent.
And while women are a subject of endless fascination and curiosity in Hong’s films, Kim ensures that the enticing Hee-jung is not just an object of desire. If Ham is a decorated filmmaker who remains dissatisfied, Hee-jung is just beginning her artistic journey, trying to cultivate her muse while navigating the affections of an older and much more experienced man. Kim’s understated poise helps put the two characters on equal footing.
Which hour you prefer of Right Now, Wrong Then will probably say more about your philosophy on romance than it does about Hong’s. The filmmaker doesn’t seem to favor one half over the other, but their sequential placement would argue that he sees the second half as another try at the same scenario. In truth, it’s the cumulated force of both halves that drives home Hong’s overall point, which appears to be that the more open we allow ourselves to be—to other people, to new experiences, to the possibility of things working out—the better off we are. Does that mean Ham and Hee-jung eventually live happily ever after? In his sly way, Hong proposes something at the finale that’s maybe even greater: a profoundly new way of being in the world.
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Writer: Hong Sang-soo
Starring: Jung Jae-young, Kim Min-hee
Release Date: June 24, 2016
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.