Written and directed by Hong Sang-soo
Hong Sang-Soo is often accused of making the same film over and over again; a man and a woman meet, have awkward conversations, drink soju, and life goes on. It’s by turns tiresome and winsome, because Hong’s films are often centered around profound ruminations on a sense of self and human relationships, wrapped up and delivered with a soft charm and humour that permeates each film to its core.
In Right Now, Wrong Then, he literally makes the same movie twice, and in the process, he both acknowledges and dismantles his critics’ objections. The film is divided into two mini films, the first of which is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, and the second of which is “Right Now, Wrong Then”. Each follows the trajectory of Ham Cheon-soo, a moderately famous art house director who visits a small town to screen his latest film and give a brief lecture/Q&A at the local university. Arriving a day before, he wanders around in boredom before coming across a young artist, Yoon Hee-jeong, whom he is instantly attracted to and proceeds to spend the day with. It’s a love story not entirely unlike the premise of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Hong has a fluid, comprehensive camera that zooms, pans, and allows the actors time to develop a scene in long takes. Conversations unfold in real-time, uninterrupted by reverse shots, but constantly interrupted by passers-by, awkward silences and gaps between sentences, shy smiles and nervous laughter.
The only differences between the two chapters are minor, seemingly inconsequential details – which in Hong’s case means conversation. These sorts of butterfly effect moments have long been approached in films (mostly about time travel), but rarely have they had the sort of immediate, emotional connection they do here. Instead of massive life events changing from small disruptions, they are subtle, minor differences. Also of note, it’s not as if the second chapter is a Groundhog Day-esque fantasy, or a repeat – the two events pass each other by like ships in the night, unaware of the others existence.
Capturing the fleeting transience of a chance encounter, the awkward, fumbling first steps toward conversation with a stranger, with a warm, humanist approach that allows for good even among broken people, Right Now, Wrong Then also grafts in ideas about multiple realities that exist parallel to ours.
Even though it’s thought provoking, intuitively insightful, and often hilarious, it may be tempting to consider Right Now, Wrong Then, like any of Hong Sang-soo’s films, as part of a minor canon due to its quiet, understated approach and low stakes subject matter. But it would be a mistake to dismiss any film that captures these distinctly lived in moments. Moments imbued with a philosophic approach to the subtleties of language and conversation, yet also resonate emotionally and ring with laughter.