Director: Hong Sang-soo
London Film Festival review
While the virtual rewind that occurs at the halfway point of Right Now, Wrong Then places Hong Sang-soo’s latest as one of the acclaimed director’s more formally playful works, this is no grand diversion from the consistent craftsman’s usual manner. If anything, the film’s narrative eccentricity serves as a justification for the lack of obvious variation in Hong’s filmography, which also includes such similarly plotted creations as The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie. Presenting two parallel timelines of the same encounter between an esteemed filmmaker and a painter, Right Now, Wrong Then skilfully demonstrates how the slightest nuances in circumstance can elicit notably different results.
The film’s two parts have the same rough framework. Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong), a director with time to kill, strikes up a conversation with a stranger named Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee). The two grab a coffee together, head back to her place, go out again for drinks, meet up with some of Yoon’s friends and then part ways for the night. But the focus is on the many small ways in which these alternate realities aren’t the same – how subtle differences in climate, aesthetics or timings can influence the mannerisms, phrasings and outspokenness of our two leads and how these elements can in turn influence the course of a conversation. The relevance of personal history and emotional baggage is shown to be dependent on the contexts in which such things emerge. When Ham casually divulges some important personal information in the film’s first half, it cripplingly sours the film’s central relationship. When he solemnly drops the same info in the film’s second half, it serves to bring the two parties together in melancholy.
Aided by two seamlessly cohesive lead performances, the experiment serves as a sharp illustration of how the same people can hold a multitude of often contradictory qualities depending on the circumstance. Given the inherent importance of the film’s minute details, Right Now, Wrong Then could have only worked under the expertise of a filmmaker like Hong, who shows a typically deft handling of the small shifts in tone during social interactions. The director has an uncanny awareness of the many shades of awkwardness – from the lightly amusing to the deeply despondent – and seems profoundly tuned in to the multiple levels on which a single conversation can progress. Like the abstract painting which Yoon is seen fussing over, our choice of words can be driven in ways that are practically arbitrary beyond our sub-verbal feelings.
Despite being a work of great precision, the film lacks the Rohmer-esque momentum of a steady accumulation towards a transcendent revelation that you’ll find in Hong Sang-soo’s best output, resulting in a film that feels slightly less than the sum of its parts. Nonetheless this is a warm, sensitive and insightful drama that finds humour and poignancy in the relation between our inner workings and our outward forms of expression, whether these forms be a film, a painting or a momentary look of despair on an unnoticed face.