Within Hong Sang-soo’s filmography, his latest film Right Now, Wrong Then is nothing new. In their structural and situational similarities (as well as cast), Hong’s films pose a challenge to the critic; one runs the risk of repeating oneself. What follows below has surely been expressed by countless others in their own engagements with Hong’s work. In this sense, Hong’s films and film criticism on them strikingly mirror each other in their variability of sameness. So why do his films remain, one after another for the most part, compelling to watch? What is the secret of the attraction to Hong’s films? By extension, we can also ask, ‘What is the secret of the attraction between characters in Hong’s films?’ For anyone well-versed with Hong’s work and cinematic/narrative concerns, these two questions and how to work through them are undeniably related to each other. They also pose a roundabout way to talking about Right Now, Wrong Then.
Hong’s films feature (often male) characters who find themselves (past or present) enamoured with or in pursuit of someone whom they glimpse from afar and/or (re)encounter, and over or towards whom they inevitably behave in rather, well, awkward and even asinine ways. But ‘asinine’ is really not the appropriate word, is it? On the surface, ‘asinine’ may come to mind, especially with regards to the myriad film director characters that populate the world of Hong’s films and oftentimes end up ingesting so much soju in the presence of the women they know and/or meet. In truth, however, the word is ‘vulnerable.’ Time and again, Hong’s insular worlds present men and women drawing each other out, be it ingenuously or by design, in words and gestures. In the process, both the desire to connect and attempt to communicate with someone are laid bare so nakedly that it is hard to look away and not see in these characters aspects of oneself (past or present).
Coupled with Hong’s signature long takes and zoom-ins/-outs, such scenes of vulnerable, awkward exchanges about themselves and longing (which is not exactly always sexual) across all of his films are intriguing on several levels all at once: as anthropological observation of urban populations generally and artistic/film communities and cultures more specifically; as clinical direction on Hong’s part, with his restrained cinematic vernacular that includes the voiceover, zoom shots, and tilting honed sharply with each subsequent film; and as precise performance from his cast, in terms of timing, gesture, and chemistry with one another. Such scenes constitute world of his films and captivate all the more because of their ordinariness, nay, drabness, in setting and circumstance: a chance encounter, a set appointment, or somewhere in between; at a restaurant, bar, cafe, on the sidewalk, or in front of the entrance to a place. In such public, unassuming spaces, these scenes (however brief they may be) carve out a degree of intimacy between the characters that help build both the reality and insularity of their worlds. One of the most poetic and humourous qualities in Hong’s films is the deep contrast between public spaces and private worlds, most succinctly demonstrated in Q&A scenes in his films, such as Oki’s Movie (2010) and Right Now, Wrong Then. Integral to these insular worlds of men and women are the city and the season in which they are set, which impact the spatial circumstances of encounters and the characters’ psychological moods. Yet part and parcel of the intriguing pull of scenes in Hong’s films is the way he and his cast bring together these elements to produce a feeling of improvisation. This feeling of improvisation, of communication and life unfolding, born from a highly controlled scenario and performance, is perhaps the secret of the attraction to Hong’s films. This same improvisatory nature arguably applies to the attraction between characters in the films; Hong’s preoccupations of new/rekindled ties, doubling, and repetition are often the result of happenstance and characters forgoing a set agenda in favour of giving themselves over to curiosity.
Right Now, Wrong Then is no exception: it presents the scenario of film director Ham Choon-soo (Jeon Jae-young) spontaneously spending the day with a painter named Yoon Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee) twice, distinguished by gestural and formal subtleties that nevertheless affects each version’s tone. The events of each version remain the same: in a spot of sunlight and quiet amidst winter, Choon-soo meets Hee-jeong in a museum; after having presented themselves, they get an impromptu coffee, then proceed to spend the day together at her atelier, a sushi bar, and her friend’s cafe. The following day, Choon-soo departs for Seoul. Both versions are expectedly rife with exchanges between the two characters that teeter between hesitation and nervousness as they try to get to know one another, lined with a frankness that helps to shape the social dynamic between them. As Choon-soo and Hee-jeong, actors Jeon and Kim are saddled with the immense responsibility of delivering their roles not only once but twice, each time revealing different facets of their characters. Jeon’s blithe, sometimes gauche talkativeness and inebriated moments rank as one of the top performances in Hong’s cinema, and deservedly won the Best Actor award at this year’s Locarno International Film Festival. Of late, Kim has been proving her acting chops (in 2012’s Helpless, 2013’s Very Ordinary Couple, and surely in the upcoming The Handmaid) and she meets Jeon head-on here with a very thoughtful performance that seamlessly mixes irritation, amusement, and curiosity. As with other Hong films, part of the pleasure and humour here is witnessing the evolution of Choon-soo and Hee-jeong’s rapport over the course of the day in varying social backdrops.
On that note, a summation of the attraction to Hong’s films is the piercing, mathematical examination of power and social dynamics between people, be it two or six, defined less formally as ‘getting together.’ No other filmmaker today has made of people getting together into an endlessly fascinating problem. Take out or put in an element or person of a given equation and the mood, conversation, and behavior change. Accordingly, Right Now, Wrong Then can be rewritten as ‘Right Now – x = Wrong Then + x,’ or some such variation.