South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s work tends to blend together, but that usually enhances its appeal. There has rarely been a better instance of this phenomenon than his latest feature, “Right Now, Wrong Then,” which is actually the same movie played through twice with slight variations — and equally charming results.
So many of Hong’s movies involve neurotic-but-endearing characters, one of whom is usually a filmmaker; at some point, he usually drinks too much, argues and obsesses over women, career woes and creative aspirations. Throw in a couple unassuming structural gimmicks — flashbacks, voiceovers, an unreliable narrator or two — and the entertainment value of Hong’s oeuvre maintains a comforting routine for those keen to its appeal.
The filmmaker’s deceptively simple approach of static camerawork, occasionally interrupted by the wandering pan or abrupt zoom, belies canny storytelling tactics lurking in the texture of his narrative. Hong’s films offer a distinct entertainment value embedded in their clever designs. “Right Now, Wrong Then” follows a conceit not unlike “Groundhog Day,” with characters enduring an identical experience and making small but notably different actions that lead to varied outcomes.
Just as Bill Murray learned to seduce women through a process of failure, so too does respected film director Ham Sung (Jae-yeong Jeong), as we watch him go through the process of romancing shy painter Hee-jung (Min-hee Kim). While Murray’s Phil knew he was trapped in a cycle of repetition, however, the two versions of Ham Sung’s story are self-contained. Still, like “Groundhog Day,” Hong’s movie expertly plays with the endless network of possibilities created by every moment.
It takes a full hour for the formal trickery to reveal its full design. Ham Sung meets Hee-jung, grabs a drink with her, falls in love and joins her at a party; the next day, he attends a Q&A for one of his movies. Then the whole story restarts. Both segments run almost exactly the same length, yielding one of the longest movies in an oeuvre that often favors concision. At the same time, as two hourlong segments in dialogue with one another, the premise is more accessible than some of Hong’s more convoluted gimmicks (the non-linear use of love letters in “Hill of Freedom,” the multiple flashbacks in “Ha Ha Ha”).
While it’s clear that Ham Sung executes somewhat better judgement the second time around, he still gets inebriated and abruptly expresses his love for the baffled Hee-jung — and later, strips naked in front of her friends after a few more drinks push him over the edge. The implication that this somehow serves him better than the cocktail chatter in the previous segment marks one of several canny moments embedded throughout. Hong invites scrutiny of his narrative’s implications: Along with Ham Sung’s varying choices, his temperament shifts alongside the different outcomes, as does Hee-jung’s reactions to his behavior. Frustrated in one moment, amused in the next, she’s one of the movie’s chief psychological puzzles.
Through so many bread crumbs, Hong conveys a unique philosophy about the ambiguity of any decision-making process. Both segments contain a mixture of good and bad judgement, leaving one to wonder which half actually corresponds to the two outcomes described by the title. That’s the greatest triumph of “Right Now, Wrong Then”: While intensely familiar, it still manages to surprise.
“Right Now, Wrong Then” premiered this week at the Locarno Film Festival and is expected to play at more festivals in the fall. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.