Right Now, Wrong Then May 4, 2018
2 Hr., 1 Min.
There's a moment in 2016’s Right Now, Wrong Then, the 18th movie from productive South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, during which our protagonist, Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), looks intently at a painting. The piece, colorful and precisely made to look sloppy, was done by Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), a woman he met a few hours ago. What Chun-su thinks is important to Hee-jung: he's an acclaimed artist himself, and any sort of feedback could affect her process.
Two reactions are seen in Right Now, Wrong Then. The first is delivered with
hesitation and stilted kindness, perhaps to guard Hee-jung’s feelings. The second is sharper, as if Chun-su wanted to cause harm. “Starting out not knowing where you’re headed, you only have your senses and perceptions to rely on,” Chun-su says the first time around. “That’s a hard path. You must be very sensitive and daring to do it.” His second response is coarser: “It seems like the painting is only for you,” he says. “Like it was made to comfort yourself.” Both of Chun-su’s takeaways are in line with the push-pull of Right Now, Wrong Then, which is essentially two short films stitched together to make one. In both, Chun-su, a filmmaker, is in Suwon for a screening of one of his movies, and spends the preceding day with a beautiful stranger named Hee-jung, a former model who’s taken up painting.
In the “first” film, Chun-su and Hee-jung are overly self-conscious as they get to know each other. But in their tip-toeing, they ultimately run into trouble, in part due to half-truths and hidden realities suddenly coming to light at the last minute. In the “second” film, interactions are uneasy, Chun-su almost too forward in everything he says or does. But this authenticity leads to punchier, more meaningful interactions. Right Now, Wrong Then, which reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s structure-damning Certified Copy (2010), is an engaging experiment — a rumination on how different our lives might be if we adjusted the smallest elements of our interactions. It also feels like an allegory for the creative process, specifically caught up in how frustrating it can be when what we’re presenting doesn't effectively convey what we’re trying to say to those who consume it. Chun-su’s hesitating assessment of Hee-jung’s painting in the first "movie" makes it seem as though Hong, in a way, is analyzing himself generously through his characters. How brave he is, he tells us via his leading character, to have made a successful movie so built on apparent directionlessness. Chun-su’s comments in the other film, however, act as a reversal of this: the “it seems like it’s only for you” line almost sounds like Hong’s self-doubts coming out of the woodwork; it's as if he were trying to indirectly tell us that, with every movie he makes, he is anxious that we will regard his work as masturbatory, difficult to understand and enjoy.
I have until now never seen one of Hong’s features, even though he's one of our most prolific modern filmmakers. Since 1996, he's generally made one to two features every year, with some breathing room allotted when necessary. (He’s been especially tireless lately, though: In 2017 alone, he churned out three movies starring Kim, whom he recently left his wife for.) If Right Now, Wrong Then indicates anything, it's that Hong is a precise, perceptive filmmaker insistent on making movies in which motivations and arcs are on the face of it muddled and sometimes ambivalent but which gain deeper resonance with some time away. So often in movies we're introduced to characters who are believable but nonetheless too tidied and specific, conspicuously tied down to the narrative requirements of the movie. Hong is different. Why not make a film where the characters feel a bit more unmoored, where relationships and storylines feel more vulnerable to life's whims than to a story's and which causes us as an audience member to only hope the ride will be worth it? The movie makes you eager for more, even if the concept of giving us “more” clashes with Hong’s understated style. A-