Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then, released in South Korea in 2015, is finally opening in Japan, though it should be mentioned that Hong’s films are not temporally fixed. Current events or even trends have absolutely no purchase on his stories. Even the fashion sense is strictly generic. Right Now is one of Hong’s experiments in bifurcated narratives, and while it doesn’t really do anything different with the form, it does show incremental improvements in his command of it when compared to past experiments, like In Another Country.
Hong tells the same story twice, with slight variations that indicate what might happen if some small detail were changed. The base plot involves director Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong), who has come to a provincial city to present one of his films to a group of enthusiasts and answer their questions. However, the day he arrives he learns the screening has been postponed a day, so he has to kill this one. He does the tourist route and visits a local palace where he spies Hee-Jeong (Kim Min-hee) and is immediately attracted to her. He cleverly positions himself in her vector and strikes up a conversation. She is a painter but doesn’t know Cheon-soo’s work. Nevertheless, she seems impressed by the fact that he is successful and they go back to her atelier and he makes an effort to praise her own work. If you know Hong, you might expect them to fall into bed at this point, but they don’t. Instead they go out drinking and spill their respective guts in suitably humorous fashion. They then join some friends of Hee-Jeong’s at a nearby restaurant where Cheon-soo’s ego, bloated by alcohol, gets the best of him.
Because this story is told first and we are led to expect that variations will ensue in the second telling (the titles give this away), the viewer is acutely on guard for these variations, and that added sense of artificially stimulated attention brings something interactive to the movie that is both invigorating and frustrating. The changes are more a matter of tone. Cheon-soo is more straightforward about his problems and direct about his feelings toward Hee-jeong, whose reactions shift accordingly. Though the writing is sharp and the plot developments never challenge our suspension of disbelief, the second half’s more or less reactionary methodology was a bit of a turn-off for me, since it seemed to remove Hee-jeong’s agency as a character. It’s a given that Hong’s male protagonists are his proxies, but he usually provides his female foils with plenty of opportunity to exert their integrity. Funnier and more formally adept than his past experiments, Right Now, Wrong Then is strangely tentative in terms of what the results of this particular experiment is. I liked it without really understanding what the point was.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).
Right Now, Wrong Then home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2015 Jeonwonsa Film Co.