Film Reviews

Right Now, Wrong Then Hong Sang-soo

Rating - 9/10
Hong Sang-soo's latest cinematic experiment is a mesmerizing self-reflexive parallel timeline variation on the meet-cute that amalgamates the invigorating providences of Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) with a transitory setup loosely reminiscent of Alex Karpovsky's Red Flag (2012).  Right Now, Wrong Then is bursting with both platonic and romantic potentialities in the chance encounter(s) between renowned Seoul-based director Ham Chunsu (Jung Jae-young) and former model/nascent painter Yoon Heejung (Kim Min-hee) at Hwaseong Haenggung Palace in Suwon, South Korea. In pegging the film's trajectory, the temptation persists to associate it with the branching avenues of Kieślowski's Blind Chance (1981) where invariably different scenarios multiply from a single catalyst; however, Sang-soo avoids such boldly proclaimed metaphysical quandaries by reducing the time frame to a single day's courtship and offering light and accessible meditation on diverging gender perspectives and human adaptiveness.
Much as graphic novelist Jessica Abel fancies an appealing symmetry and psychological equity between a destined young couple (Ben and Darcy) in her twenty-four-page story, As I Live and Breathe (1997), Sang-soo shares a similar conscientiousness in juxtaposing complementary hour-long halves that compose one thematic whole.  The crafty title-card inversion of the film title, "Right Then, Wrong Now," instantly permits the audience to ponder the obvious differences in staging and character arcs through its inevitable repetition. Slyly using this expectation to his advantage, the director navigates plot pitfalls through a steady pace that augments the strengths of his two main performers. Rather than inching towards a grand diversion, the film gently builds immeasurable degrees of intimacy, from an aching smile, to a recoiling shrug, to the tips of fingers that linger on the cheek for just a second.
As Chunsu and Heejung move from a sunny coffee shop for small talk, to her painter's studio for critique, to a sushi bar for soju and confession, the point of view of the first half aligns with the male vantage point in Chunsu's intermittent voiceover that expresses sheer ecstasy in Heejung's company.  Mood is individually defined by an awkward tension of interest in artistic philosophy, and comparatively, by a realistic avoidance of conflict in the separating details of lifestyles and career success.  Of course, in the film's dry humor, this hanging ambiguity and Chunsu's lack of self-awareness only serve to delay an ugly public humiliation.  When Sang-soo literally flips his camera in the familiar congruency of "Right Now, Wrong Then," often positioning it forty-five degrees from its original spot, subtle visual clues materialize in the frame as they do in the revitalized conversation, suggesting Heejung's more decisive presence.
The re-envisioned scenario pursues a course that is less attuned to natural cadence and fluidity of language than it is fantastical memory and honest exposure (which comes to an amusingly literal fruition in the late-night destination at friend Suyoung's café).  In Heejung's changing temperament, her once heated orange acrylic paint turns to a serene green.  During this particular series of events, Chunsu regards her abstract painting with a critical comment about her complacency, but he also embraces the consequences of his behavior more openly, acknowledging his flirtations and philandering. In the absence of emotional candor that he was earlier afforded in private voiceover monologues, Chunsu's questions to Heejung reveal personal information (that she's studying French and just quit smoking) rather than stalling purely on his awe of her beauty, which accurately facilitates his own frankness in dialogue.  Despite being initially put off by his demeanor, Heejung reciprocates Chunsu's uniquely sentimental answers.
Tracing many of Sang-soo's films and other real-time modern romances to the template of Before Sunrise, simple long-take depictions of human interaction may not seem inherently cinematic; but, the way in which they are framed by an artist, much like the two individuals at the heart of Right Now, Wrong Then, can resonate with an unmistakable universality.  And the parallels of the film plunge even further into pensive perspectives with self-commentary.  If the first hour is viewed episodically, its counterpoint can be seen as a revised series finale, like a response to a test screening.  It's yet another example of movie magic permitting a therapeutic or idealistic reshaping of our own realities, actively encouraging a conversation about the craft, which includes any/all aforementioned work.  In that way, the subtle tricks of Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy (2010), as in other arising examples, only serve to complement Hong Sang-soo's evolution of cinmatic storytelling.