An established preoccupation among film directors is how the re-staging of a scene from different perspectives alters the tone, message and experience of an otherwise unchanged plot. Whether it’s the strictly formal experimentation of The Five Obstructions or the philosophical interrogation of subjectivity in Rashomon, even the most strikingly distinct auteurs are curious to witness how changes, whether they be subtly atmospheric or obviously performative, redefine the entire message of a scene, an act, or an entire film. Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then follows the flirtatious courtship of a middle-aged arthouse director and a younger painter over the course of a day, before restaging the exact same events with differences both slight and noticeable. Having bagged the top prize at Locarno last year, Sang-soo’s latest film is not only an intriguing vehicle of cinematic experimentation, but an eloquent statement on the importance of selflessness in developing meaningful human connection.
The first half observes Ham Chun-su, a well-respected Korean filmmaker, visit the city of Suwon, where one of his films is being screened. While touring an old palace at the start of his visit, he strikes up conversation with Yoon Hee-jung, an introverted, attractive young painter, and spends the rest of the day and night with her. The first incarnation of these events is relatively nihilistic, betraying a mirthless, aloof detachment toward our protagonists and dismissing their loneliness as unbridgeable. Indeed, this first half – tellingly sub-titled “Right Then, Wrong Now,” an inversion of the real title, confirms our cynical impression of Chun-su as a middle-aged fuckboy, suggesting that nothing precludes sincere human connection more than self-centeredness.
However, it’s when the film repeats itself with variations in both atmosphere and plot that Sang-soo’s formal vision amounts to a captivating experience. The primary difference that belies all other ancillary differences in the second half is a change in Chun-su’s attitude. He is seemingly less interested in heaping insincere flattery upon Hee-jung and more at ease with presenting an honest, amicable version of himself. While the first version of events pessimistically dismisses their day together as ultimately inconsequential with respect to the rest of their lives, we revisit the same events to witness how a fleeting, chance encounter can instead mean something to both, and potentially even persist beyond the final credits. The same line, “You’re the first to feel like a true woman to me,” is repeated in both halves in exactly the same restaurant, but because of Sang-soo’s penchant for eliciting significant differences from even the most subtle restaging, that one line carries completely different connotations the second time it’s said. Indeed, the film is truly incomplete without its second half, when the correct title “Right Then, Wrong Now” finally pops up, not merely because the latter sheds Chun-su’s redundant narration – arguably the film’s most nagging flaw – present in the first, but because both halves in tandem illustrate, without a hint of bludgeoning didacticism, the importance of sincerity and openness to establishing a nourishing relationship.
The marvelous chemistry between Chun-su and Hee-jung, respectively performed by Jung Jae-young and Kim Min-hee, electrifies the film throughout, evincing in the first half the necessary discomfort and the tender awkwardness of a burgeoning romance. There are comical moments in both halves, but in the first half, it feels as if we are laughing at the characters, while in the latter, the humor evinced feels much more well-spirited, warmly inviting us to laugh without condescension. Without giving too much away, for much joy comes from noticing the differences in the second half for yourself, there are some scenes in the second half whose plots are adjusted to border on the absurd. Despite having now only seen just one Hong Sang-soo film, I can already recognize why some label his work “Korean mumblecore.” His artistic vision, which sparingly employs cuts in favor of frequent zooms, quietly metatextualizes his own directorial presence in a way that doesn’t irritate, as in lesser films like Birdman, but instead self-consciously comments on the symbiotic imitation of life and art. After all, not only are the two protagonists themselves artists — a filmmaker and a painter — but the allegations made just a few months ago that Sang-soo himself has been having an affair with Kim Min-hee, who plays Yoon Hee-jung, invites one to potentially regard the fictionalized womanizer in the first half of the film as a vehicle of cinematic confessionalism.
As an austere, daring film, Right Now, Wrong Then is a fascinating exercise in formal experimentation, demonstrating how small differences in staging, lighting, dialogue and the like can completely transform the significance of a story. To foreigners, it can also serve an ethnographic purpose of exposing us to contemporary Korean culture, examining how courtship throughout the world is subject to the same basic decencies that Sang-soo regards as imperative. But most notably, both incarnations of Chun-su and Hee-jung’s relationship together rewardingly demonstrate how a fleeting romance can be nurtured or undone by either the right attitude of compassionate honesty or the wrong attitude of self-centeredness.
Right Now, Wrong Then will be show at Cornell Cinema this Friday, September 30, and Sunday, October 2.
Lorenzo Benitez is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]