2 Hr., 1 Min.
Right Now, Wrong Then May 4, 2018
here is a moment in 2016’s Right Now, Wrong Then, the 18th feature of the productive South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo, during which our protagonist, Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), looks intently at a painting. The piece, polychromatic 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 is an acclaimed artist himself, and any sort of feedback could imbue her process in the future.
Two reactions are showcased in Right Now, Wrong Then. The first is
delivered with hesitation and faux kindness, perhaps to guard Hee-jung’s feelings. The second is churlish, 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,” he 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 the beautiful stranger Hee-jung, an erstwhile model who’s taken up painting.
In the “first” film, Chun-su and Hee-jung are careful to protect the other’s feelings. 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.
Chun-su’s dithering appraisal of Hee-jung’s painting in the inaugural "movie" makes it seem as though Hong, in a way, is complimenting himself. How brave he is, he tells us via his leading character, to have made a 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 is 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 a masturbatory example of arthouse cinema, difficult to understand and enjoy.
Fortunately, Right Now, Wrong Then, which in many ways feels like the South Korean equivalent of Abbas Kiarostami’s structure-damning Certified Copy (2010), is never supercilious. It is an engaging experiment that wonders how different our lives might be if we adjusted the smallest of 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 to another does not effectively convey what we’re trying to say.
I have until now never seen one of Hong’s features, even though he is one of our most prolific modern filmmakers. Since 1996, he has 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, along with the general overviews of his other films, indicates anything, it is that Hong is a precise, perceptive filmmaker who’s never a naturalist for naturalism’s sake. He is genuinely interested in the complexities of human relationships, and is insistent on making movies in which motivations and arcs are muddled and ambivalent. So often, even in our greatest works of cinema, we are provided characters who are believable but nonetheless tidied and specific, tied down to the movie in which they’re starring. Hong is different: Why not make a picture in which the focused-upon individuals are ones who could very well exist in real life, in which relationships and storylines are so vagarious that we resort to just going along for the ride, in the same way we do our own lives?
This becomes more provocative the more we let the idea marinate. Right Now, Wrong Then is so nonchalant, we almost forget that what Hong is doing is decidedly just as flashy as what our most style-dependent filmmakers are. Except instead of aesthetic prisinity being of utmost importance, verisimilitude is preferred. Right Now, Wrong Then makes for a beguiling introduction to his sensibilities. I now find myself wanting more, even if the concept of giving us “more” artistically clashes with Hong’s style. A-