AFI FEST 2015: Right Now, Wrong Then, by Scott Nye
You’re not going to see the latest Hong Sang-soo movie – you’re going to see the latest installment of the Hong Sang-soo show. Releasing at least one film each year since 2008 (plus doubling up in 2013), his films stick to more or less the same tone, subject, aesthetic, and character types. If there’s a story about a film director with a weakness for drink who’s juggling a series of comically tragic relationships that start to all sound the same, Hong will find it. Probably by use of a zoom shot.
Even within such a firmly-established pattern, Right Now, Wrong Then has such a Hong Sang-soo premise that I’m actually surprised he’s never, to my knowledge, used it before. Jung Jae-young stars as Ham Chun-su, a successful film director, who hits it off with Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), an aspiring painter, who admires him, at least for his reputation. They have quite a lot to drink, and the whole date quickly goes south. Then, after all is lost, the story restarts itself, with different beats in the same environs. For a filmmaker who’s been somewhat obsessed with repetition and slight variations, this set-up seems a long time coming.
AFI FEST programmed Right Now, Wrong Then in the late slot on a weekday night, and I was not the only cinephile in attendance who had difficulty hanging with the two-hour film as the subtle variations between the two stories unfolded, but I can still say with some confidence that this is another remarkable film by Hong. If there is a filmmaker alive who’s locked into “how we live now,” it is he. His characters are both captains of their own fate and ironically incapable of achieving much of anything. They make grand, drunken, heartfelt pronouncements that nobody understands, and which they quickly regret. True intimate connection is impossible to come by. Achievements are but an illusion. And everything in their world starts to seem far too familiar.
The lovely thing about Right Now, Wrong Then is that the two halves are not so dissimilar. It’s really just a slight change in temperament, a willingness to be honest at the right time and a little cagey when the truth doesn’t matter. I was often told as a child, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” For Hong, it’s also when you say it. Too soon, and it can come across as desperate; too late, simply apologetic or defensive. His dissections of the thousand ways to screw up almost anything are razor-sharp, the results just as often funny (it’s difficult, but well worthwhile, to see his films with an audience) as they are devastating.
This is not mere pessimism, though his negative side is usually his most amusing. The title is Right Now, Wrong Then for a reason. When things do work out between two people, it becomes all the more miraculous after we see them fail and fail again and again. This repetition – which, even in a less determined structure, always feels crafted; Hong is no realist – calls to attention how many of our interactions follow specified rules, and how emphasizes both the predictability and total shock of our responses to them. We might fall on a repeated line we’ve seen work before (in RNWT, Chun-su’s responses to Hee-jung’s initial queries follow a very specific, falsely modest script), or we might be left scrambling at a question we did not anticipate (two women calling the filmmaker on his well-documented affairs makes for a great bit of uncomfortable comedy). But mostly, intimacy is gained through completely unexpected means, by some tossed-off remark or action that might have easily offended some, but just happened to delight the one you’re with.
Right Now, Wrong Then was shot by Hong’s frequent cinematographer, Park Hong-yeol, and their work together is getting richer each time. Despite the modesty of Hong’s stories and shot structures (most scenes play out in a single take), Park ensures they’re lit quite beautifully, moving the camera around in small but effective bursts to draw the audience’s attention. Their famous zooms are expertly deployed as always. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the gradual zoom into Kim’s face as the first date goes spectacularly downhill, only to rapidly zoom back out and recapture the whole scene. With this move, Hong and Park reframe the thrust of the narrative away from Chun-su and onto Hee-jung, whose perspective on the afternoon had thus far only been of supportive interest. Coming late in the first section of the film, it helps us to see the second half more from her point of view. This decision is further underscored by the subtle way Hong and Park reframe the familiar scenes, placing Kim more in the foreground. If ever there was a single film to illustrate the importance of framing, Right Now, Wrong Then would be it.
AFI FEST 2015 Presented by Audi ran from November 5th-November 12th. Right Now, Wrong Then currently has no U.S. distributor.