Theme and Variation: Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then


Right Now, Wrong Then
Directed by Hong Sang-soo
Opens June 24

Right Now, Wrong Then continues Hong Sang-soo’s career-long project of reshuffling and doubling romantic entanglements in differing permutations and tones. His last film, 2014’s (sadly undistributed) Hill of Freedom, introduced two significant new disruptions: an affair’s trajectory is revisited through the structure of a pile of letters read in random order after being dropped, and much of the dialogue is in fractured English, necessitated by dropping a Japanese protagonist into South Korea. The tone—as in recent efforts like In Another Country, Hahaha and Like You Know It All—was close to frenzied farce; in other recent works (The Day He Arrives, Our Sunhi, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon), the constant cycle of heavy drinking and grim times was rendered as more of a depressingly repetitive purgatory.

Right Now splits the difference: it’s becalmed, a little self-consciously so, but not outright despairing. The story and structure are per usual: a director, Ham Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), travels to show his film and speak afterwards. He kills time, meets a woman—former model turned beginning painter Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee)—and eventually they go drinking, with encounters of varying awkwardness unfolding from there; the same set-up is repeated in the second half with variations. The film often unfolds far from places cluttered with other people or any ambient noise: the first meeting between Ham and Yoon at a temple is so quiet it’s unnervingly close to sounding like a soundproofed room.

Revisiting the same situation twice leaves ambiguity as to whether these are two permutations from different parallel universes or simply differently remembered versions of the same events (the first half is narrated by Ham, the second by no one, so there’s the possibility of a He Said, She Said Nothing framework). This ambiguous same-situation-twice scenario was also deployed in 2000’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, a film which basically ended up with the same relationship mess despite two different means to that end. Right Now, Wrong Then is different because, in its second half, Ham is consistently more honest about who he is and what he wants, resulting in a less painful time for him and all concerned. This makes the film an odd attempt at moral instruction, which is the last thing you’d expect from a filmmaker as devoted as Cassavetes to unapologetically anatomizing heavy drinking and attendant bad behavior. The first half was shot, edited and shown to the cast before the second half began production: this is a film that builds auto-critique into its production, a new twist for Hong.

Where Hong’s earlier films had nudity and scenes of over-determined, sometimes unfruitful missionary thrusting, of late he’s been in a chaster mood; when Ham drunkenly strips (in what seems a nod to Peter Falk’s similar act of aggression in Husbands), the camera zooms its gaze away. Like Tsai Ming-liang (with whom he otherwise shares absolutely nothing in common), Hong is becoming less explicit and more Buddhist; his statue here looms over the heroine’s house. Getting frenzied is better for getting viewer attention: Right Now, Wrong Then is, for this master filmmaker, a straight down the middle effort, which doesn’t mean it’s not essential—following Hong’s variations on a theme makes each installment richer.


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