Review: Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, 2015) – SFIFF 2016

rightnowwrongthen

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

If I had realized before I had begun the film that its director had made Hill of Freedom (which screened at last year’s SFIFF), I wouldn’t have watched it. As it was, I recognized Hong Sang-soo‘s stylistic elements immediately, from his slow, almost farcical zooms (which recall campy comedies) to his eccentrically-timed pans to the socially awkward dialogue of his characters. I groaned, dreading a repeat of last year’s picture.

But Hong’s unique tone finds a better home in his new film, Right Now, Wrong Then, which imagines two ways a budding romance might play out. In both versions, acclaimed director Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong) arrives in Suwon, a small city, to screen one of his films and to deliver a lecture. Wandering the streets, he comes upon a peaceful temple where, taking a rest, he meets a beautiful young painter, Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee), to whom he is immediately attracted.

In the first part, titled “Right Then, Wrong Now,” Ham is slick and insincere, hiding inconvenient personal details and using excessive flattery in order to win Hee-jeong’s interest. His swagger elicits a similarly confident front from Yoon, who reveals early on in their conversation that she was a model before she quit to begin painting.

The eponymous second part, however, sees the same story unfold but with a crucial difference: in this version, the equally lovesick Ham is brutally (though apologetically) honest, an attitude that in turn provokes a more genuine response from Hee-jeong. In fact, in one scene his candidness about her painting earns him a sound scolding, and he slinks out of her studio to smoke a cigarette. But Hee-jeong’s anger quickly fades, and, if anything, one senses that this Ham, however uncouth, is at least trustworthy.

The act of watching Right Now, Wrong Then is a little like solving a find-the-difference picture puzzle, or like taking a memory test. While it’s obviously fun to note the divergences in each tale, it’s also important to take stock of their similarities. Ham and Soon aren’t drastically different people in the two stories–they’re simply different versions of themselves. This is an important distinction. Not surprising considering that the words “right” and “wrong” appear in its title, Hong’s film makes no bones about its moral: it’s clear which Ham we’re supposed to admire.

Watching this movie, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Woody Allen (apparently I’m not the only one). Stylistically, of course, the two have almost nothing in common. But what they do share is that they each have such a unique style, that they both deal in moral absolutes and blunt messages, that they both enjoy tampering with narrative structures (doesn’t Right Now, Wrong Then faintly echo Allen’s Melinda and Melinda?), that the stories of both feature flawed, sometimes deeply unlikable characters, that twined strains of light sadness and contemplative humor run in both their films.

That said, I’m no Woody Allen fan, but I think I can (more than) stomach some Hong Sang-soo. If the first part, “Right Then, Wrong Now,” feels (purposely) inane, the second part, “Right Now, Wrong Then,” makes up for it in that richly sad sweetness that movies are so apt at delivering. The two pieces taken together provide a thought-provoking exploration of individual choices, consequences, and fates.

(An alternate interpretation is that “Right Then, Wrong Now” is the “real” story and that “Right Now, Wrong Then” is the idealized one, the product of Ham the director thinking back on his experiences and remaking them with 20/20 hindsight. It is poignant to consider the man, haunted by failure, conjuring up a satisfying answer to the question, “What could I have done differently?”)

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