There are a few Korean directors whose films I try not to miss and one of them is Hong Sang Soo (홍상수) as I always enjoy the subtleties and romantics foibles in his films. So I was happy to hear that his latest film, Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다) was making its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). Plus it had one of the coolest film titles I’d seen in a while.
ChunSoo is a film director who arrives in Suwon to give a lecture after the screening of one of his films the next day. Since he’s early, he goes sightseeing and visits a palace where he meets HeeJung, a shy artist whom he appears entranced by. After having coffee together, HeeJung, a painter, and ChunSoo go to her workroom to see her paintings. Of course, it doesn’t stop there and their day continues into the evening with soju and sushi before ending disastrously after a confession.
But as an added twist, the scenario restarts and plays out again but will the outcome be different?
If you’ve seen a Hong Sang Soo film before, you’ll quickly notice similar threads and his stamp throughout the film. However, what sets this Right Now, Wrong Then apart is how he tells the tale rather than the tale itself. By telling basically the same story twice with slight differences, Hong intrigues and compels the viewer to pay close attention to see how and why the tale is different. In fact, he makes you want to see the film a second time so you don’t miss any of the subtle interactions he’s so good at.
I love films that make me pay attention and the subtleties and insights in this film, from simple things like the title change for the two segments – “Right Then, Wrong Now” for the first segment and “Right Now, Wrong Then” (the one that’s used ultimately as the title) for the second – to the small changes in dialogue, do that and more.
In the first version of their story, it’s more lighthearted and superficial. The conversation between ChunSoo and HeeJung is super cute, awkward but cute, and at times, quite funny. But while ‘cute’ was the word that I first thought of in this segment, along with lighthearted, as it progressed ‘fake’ takes over as it seemed that ChunSoo has created a persona for himself and recites the same lines over and over again in order to score. That being said, the dialogue in the drunken scene at the sushi restaurant was so well-acted that one truly believes that they are drunk.
In fact, Hong gets great performances by both the leads. Jung Jae Young (정재영), whom I’ve liked in several of his films including Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다), Broken (방황하는 칼날) and Our Sunhi (우리 선희), another Hong Sang Soo film, plays ChunSoo. While HeeJung is played by Kim Min Hee (김민희), whom I liked in Helpless (화차). It’s no wonder that Jung won the Best Actor award at the Locarno International Film Festival. But both performances were captivating from the delivery of dialogue to the way their facial expressions often spoke for them.
The first iteration ends in shock and embarrassment as it’s revealed that ChunSoo is married. And when that ends his attempt to pick up HeeJung, ChunSoo’s disappointment spills over into his Q&A session after his film screening. That being said, he was asked the dumbest question, and I’m paraphrasing here, but to ask anyone involved in film to ‘try to sum up what film means to them in one sentence.’ How? Seriously, how? But of course, it’s an interesting insight into how a filmmaker might feel about critics (*cringe*).
Then the tale rewinds and restarts with the second version of the title and story, and like I mentioned before, it was the subtleties between the two versions of the story that resounded with me. I loved seeing how such small changes can have such an impact on not only what happens but how people perceive you. As is often the case, Hong’s insights into human interaction are brilliant and humorous.
But of all the things that jumped out at me in the film, the similarities and differences between the versions, it was the slight refinements in their personalities that stood out the most. She was more confident in the second but it was his personality that was the most different. He was secretive and awkward, as though he had lost himself in his womanizing role but in the second, he was more blunt, truthful and real; and way less awkward.
Of course, there are differences that will jump right out at you – like the different camera angles and things that happen – but it’s how Hong portrays the characters interactions, both the subtle and obvious differences, that will captivate you. That and the fact that even when it gets serious, there’s humour.
And as a final aside, whether true or not, one is going to wonder about parallels between Hong and ChunSoo…
This is one of those films that you may want to see twice, if you’re like me and want to see all the changes/differences in the two scenarios. It was fascinating to see how the same basic scene can play out in two very different ways just from a few basic changes. But more than that, Right Now, Wrong Then is a clever indictment on the dangers of being too trite and believing your own hype. While definitely a Hong film, it’s how he tells this tale – and the superb performances in it – that sets it apart. Highly recommended!
Have you seen Right Now, Wrong Then? What did you think?