Hong Sang-soo Notarized: Right Now, Wrong Then

English Title: Right Now, Wrong Then
Korean Title: 지금은맞고그때는틀리다/Jigeumeun-matgo-geuttaeneun-tteullida
Premiere Date: August 13, 2015
U.S. Release Year: 2016
Festival: Locarno (Golden Leopard, Best Actor)
Film Number: 17
First Viewing Number: 3
First Viewing Date: October 11, 2016
Viewing Number: 3
Ranking (at beginning of run): 5
Ranking (at end of run):
Film Number (including shorts): 20
First Viewing Number (including shorts): 3
Ranking (at beginning of run, including shorts): 5
Ranking (at end of run, including shorts):

Running Time: 121 minutes (5th longest)
Color/Black & White: Color
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Shooting Format: HD Video
Structure: Two parts, heavy repetition
Recurring Actors: Yoo Joon-sang (seventh appearance), Gi Ju-bong (sixth appearance), Seo Young-hwa (fifth appearance), Youn Yuh-jung (fifth appearance), Jeong Jae-young (second appearance), Kim Min-hee (first appearance)
Season: Winter
Weather: Sunny, snowy
Alcohol: Soju, makgeolli
Non-Alcoholic Drinks: Coffee, banana milk, tea (jujube, green organic), water
Food: Sushi, potatoes
Drinking Scenes: 4
Creative People: Film director and assistant and critic, painter, model, writer
Academia: Film students
Vacation: N/A
Dream Sequences: N/A
Film Screening: 1 (off-screen)
Films Within Films: N/A
Q&A: 2 (1 off-screen)
Naps: 3
Family: Daughter-mother
Vehicle Scenes: N/A
Crying Scenes: 1
Number of Shots: 49
Number of Zooms: 18 out, 29 in
Music Style: Calm synth strings, calm synth organ
Title Background: Gray background, yellow text/Black text for closing credits
Voiceover: 1 (first half)

It’s no exaggeration to say that Right Now, Wrong Then is the film that changed Hong’s career. For the first time since The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, he won the top prize at one of the big European festivals, a Golden Leopard win at Locarno that went some way in putting him back on the map. He received U.S. distribution for the first time since In Another Country; Grasshopper Film picking up the film seemed to galvanize Cinema Guild to resume distributing his films, which they’ve done for every film since after the next one. And of course, it’s the first film with Kim Min-hee, which has subsequently flourished into probably the greatest director-actor artistic and personal partnership since probably John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. As such, especially among some of my fellow Hong acolytes, it almost has a mixed reputation, where the film that made him big internationally once again is ever-so-slightly downplayed, seen as not among his best, and hit with the backhanded compliment “accessible.” Indeed, I’ve always recommended this as the best Hong for someone who hasn’t seen his films before to start with, and while it’s always been among my favorites I felt that it had less mystery or things that captivated me than most of his greatest work. But this watch changed that for me; if it’s now for me one of his true masterpieces, then it arises out of both what makes this such a change for him and how it fits so perfectly into his oeuvre.

I don’t mean to imply, of course, that those who love Right Now, Wrong Then but don’t really connect with other Hongs have an incorrect view about it; my newfound reading of the film is certainly molded by my deep immersion in his multiverse and my at-this-point entirely non-objective feelings towards his work, especially this one. But the idea that the second half of the film is a kind of wish fulfillment for Chun-su, or that he’s gained some kind of omniscience over the narrative, has never really gelled with my understanding of the film — I actually realized I hadn’t rewatched this film since 2017, even though I remember watching it more than just one-and-a-half times.

What I hadn’t connected, and didn’t really have context for before this new run-through, is how radically this is a Kim Min-hee film, or at least a shared Kim and Jeong Jae-young film rather than the other way around. Of course, I had grokked before that Kim is the first and the last person seen in the film, both from behind as she walks, and that she had a larger role than the average Hong woman; indeed, I was primed to look more at her in all the watches I’ve had. But Right Now, Wrong Then isn’t quite like Woman on the Beach, where the perspective seems to be fought over between Jung-rae and Mun-suk, or Oki’s Movie, where the point-of-view character is neatly handed off between parts — though like that film, this initially puts up another title, the perfectly inverted Right Then, Wrong Now, before showing the actual title later.

Instead, Right Now, Wrong Then is a film of true coexistence, where both Hee-jung and Chun-su are given substantial development simultaneously rather than in succession. Of course, one might argue that we only see Hee-jung alone/apart from Chun-su in her final scene in each respective part, and that the rest of the film takes place from Chun-su’s perspective; in the (small) film festival setting the film recalls Like You Know It All more than any other Hong. But saying that, first and foremost, downplays the utterly galvanizing effect Kim has when she first appears on screen. Unlike other Hongian women, who are either already known to the Hongian male, a friend, or the community, Hee-jung truly appears out of nowhere, only revealed with her banana milk — similar to the mysterious carton of milk in Oki’s Movie — after she sits down. This lack of prior context, merely a shy woman glimpsed rather than a past flame or a friend of a friend, leads the viewer to essentially discover her alongside Chun-su.

This process evokes, more powerfully than any film I can recall, the feeling that Hong likely had as he was falling in love with Kim; I don’t think their affair began until after filming ended, and as far as I know he didn’t have any publicized affairs until Kim — he got married at 25, two years earlier than Chun-su. But the sheer magnetism that Kim has from moment one makes it a much less clear-cut case than Chun-su projecting his attraction onto her. Instead, Chun-su’s perspective seems to be simultaneously intertwined with and totally incidental to Kim’s presence. For the first time, Hong seems to be consciously depicting the processes of thinking; even in their first interaction — Kevin B. Lee’s video essay on the film and these paired scenes was also influential for me early on — there’s a greater attention to Hee-jung’s decision-making, with her eye flashes and brief pauses registering on a much more evident level than past Hong characters while still feeling as integrated into the Hongian view of naturalism as anyone else; the zoom-ins on Hee-jung as Chun-su talks about his marriage as she slowly gets more glassy-eyed are as internal as anything Hong’s ever done.

Right Now, Wrong Then, especially in its second half, is quieter and more considered than any other Hong to date, where every interaction, including of course the two magnificent drinking scenes in the sushi restaurant, which run eight and twelve minutes respectively, is teased out a little more than before. This being my first viewing since keying in on the Rivettian nature of Hong, it only feels more apropos: the length a greater opportunity for play and for exploration, where the tiniest changes between the two parts set off a chain of revelations and considerations.

At the same time, this feels different from the kind of repetition found in, say, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate or In Another Country, although the former in some ways gets echoed by Chun-su being left out in the cold in the penultimate scene. Instead of an explicit opportunity to begin again, as in the latter, or another cycle, as in the former, the relationship between the two in their fundamentally identical shape elicits a more complicated response, a clarity of form that only deepens the mystery.

The odd thing about Right Now, Wrong Then is that it exists perfectly well in terms of the first half; I found myself getting surprisingly emotional through most of it, sensing the ardor that Hong feels for Kim. That the second half deepens it further is practically a given, but it doesn’t operate on the level of strict male fantasy that many seem to think. Chun-su gets into more trouble, embarrasses himself — the stripping scene is among the funniest and most extreme Hongian breakdowns — and even if he has a better relationship with Kim and Seong-gook by the end, he only gets kissed twice on the cheek. Instead, a few other readings seem more valid to me, the second one especially: that this is a dream but the dreamer is Hee-jung instead, with her wishing that things had gone better with him; or that this truly is a simple representation of another strand of the multiverse, where it is a random encounter and could stand on its own as surely as the first half could; or that this is even the same timeline but happening years later.

There is a certain omniscience or awareness of what transpired before that can certainly be read in, though I’d argue it applies to both characters — Hee-jung, despite casually smoking in the first half, has quit in the second and says that it’s no longer allowed in the studio; Chun-su explains in the last scene that she’s someone he “knew from before.” But the way that both Chun-su and Hee-jung talk in the second half seems hesitant rather than an active attempt to right wrongs; Hee-jung even says that Chun-su speaks without thinking, and his line of questioning in the café, asking about her father who isn’t mentioned at all in the first half, is in many ways a less tactful way of speaking than anything before.

So it isn’t merely enough to say that Right Now, Wrong Then is the happier/kinder/wish-fulfillment version of Right Then, Wrong Now, but instead a depiction of alternate possibilities that happen to have a somewhat different outcome, like a less overt take on In Another Country. The thing that I forgot most was Young-sil — Seo Young-hwa with shorter hair, seemingly playing her pre-Hill of Freedom sage-like roles in the first half and her more overtly romantic Hill of Freedom persona in the second, considering her attraction to Chun-su — not only bringing one of her books, but also writing an inscription about how she agrees with what he said: discovering what’s hidden in the surface of one’s life is the only way to overcome with one’s fears. That close-up on the book, and what it says about the preceding 50 minutes and what’s to come, is as moving and mysterious to me as the ending of the second half of the film. Likewise, maybe it’s just Jeong’s brilliant performance — his only leading Hong role, and his more sickly appearance than other past Hong men makes him perfect for underplaying so that Kim can take center stage — but I’m much less inclined to see what he’s saying. Both his words about Kim’s painting — which has a similar tenor to but is much more detailed than Seong-nam’s assessment of Yoo-jeong’s drawings in Night and Day — and his parting words to Bo-ra — Go Ah-sung, the young girl in The Host, a connection which has always delighted me, as does her sheer joy at being pulled around a sledding rink — seem to come from a more genuine place than mere platitudes. Perhaps it’s just Jeong’s watery eyes as he looks at both the painting and Kim — we don’t see the former in the second part, maybe it’s the same painting or maybe not — but, even if he uses the same words as he does to describe his own films, I could see it equally as indicating a unity of spirit, an alignment of artistic sensibilities that feels just as genuine and touching to me as the more critical accusations of falling prey to comfort and conventions — this progression is the opposite of the reference letters in Our Sunhi.

To go back to those drinking scenes, I find their subtly different stagings equally instructive. The first one places Kim much closer to the camera than the second, while Jeong stays in roughly the same spot. This is generally in keeping with the more reflective or pensive spirit of the second half, first signaled in the further distance and diagonal view of their first meeting the second time around. But it also had a profound effect on how I saw the scene. Even though the viewer sees more of Jeong’s face, in the first half it’s almost as if he provides a mirror for the viewer and for Hong, collectively unable to take their eyes off of her and her gestures — for how drunk they get, and considering that they apparently were actually drinking during the shots, they consume less soju bottles than the average Hong drinking scene, a measly three — and the moment of her whispering to Jeong is unexpectedly spine-tingling. The further proximity in the second balances the view a little more, allowing the viewer to gravitate more towards Jeong crying. The same occurs in the painting scenes, where Kim sits right in front of the camera the first time and is roughly on the same line with Jeong the second time; that second shot has maybe the smallest but most impactful focus-pulling I’ve seen in Hong, where Kim stays in focus but Jeong gets slightly blurred depending on how it’s adjusted.

I’m definitely tempted to just list out the differences between the two parts: the lack of voiceover in the second part; the scenes with Bo-ra in the first half and Chun-su’s attraction to her; the pan up to a tree to open and close the first and last shot of the first half, which is absent from the second; the use of Gi Ju-bong as Won-ho, who gets his own little shots of smoking during the second half; the Q&A with Seong-gook (Yoo Joon-sang) which really doesn’t go as badly as Chun-su feels but which gets the priceless accusations of him being pretentious, ignorant, and unworthy of being a film critic. There’s also the metatextual nature of, for instance, Youn Yuh-jung as Deok-soo, returning for the last time, as a mother, essentially being the bridge between Jung Yu-mi and Kim Min-hee’s tenures; Kangwon Province is mentioned again as well. (I’m pretty sure one of Hong’s films isn’t playing at the end, though of course there is similar piano music.) I also hadn’t noticed before that the Buddhist bell rings during the last shot of Kim in the first half and during their first meeting in the second half, almost a kind of benediction of this new occurrence.

But to get back to perspective, both parts feel like two-way discoveries, with Chun-su and Hee-jung discovering each other over the course of their interactions, with little else to worry about. The nature of his visit (despite not being a vacation) and their both being strangers to each other engenders a lack of an overt goal to their interactions — like in Hill of Freedom, which to me now forms a neat trilogy of shifting perspectives with this and Yourself and Yours — with them feeling free to push and pull each other to different places, her especially taking initiative to go to the café gathering. If I had to pick one thing, I’d say that the first half is about Hee-jung discovering who Chun-su is, and the second half vice versa, but what makes Right Now, Wrong Then so remarkable is that both occur simultaneously, and that the development of both resets narratively, yet continues in the viewer’s mind, an endlessly generative process that profoundly moved me this time around.

To close, a few lines from their interactions really stuck with me, reminding me of other Hong films while also pointing the way forward. While there are extremely soju-fueled but charming declarations of love, including the found ring that Hee-jung is wearing at the end of the film, what registers even more is the gratitude, the way that they both say they will cherish their memory of this experience. It reminds me of a more positive spin on the second-to-last day of The Day He Arrives, where Seong-jun and Ye-jeon resolve to never see each other again but to always have fond memories; there is no such explicit promise here, but there’s an air of finality and wistfulness that, in light of the irresolution of before, feels genuinely happy. The relative formality of their conversation in the snow — startlingly played backwards in the trailer — is then transcended by Hee-jung taking off her glove and their bare hands touching, her words “thank you for everything” standing for so much unspoken and unacted upon. In the last conversation, they say they are glad to have gotten to know each other, and it’s that kind of intimacy, not necessarily sexual or romantic, that truly grabs me in the film; her vow to watch his films from now on functions in a similar manner, a reciprocation of his honest assessment of her paintings which reflect her loneliness and desire for comfort. In the last shot, Kim at last walks out by herself, into a future of infinite worlds possible; even if this were her only Hong though, it would be among his greatest.

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