For those who accuse Hong Sang-soo of essentially telling the same kinds of stories in his films, the first half of his latest, “Right Now, Wrong Then,” will look especially like a case of auteurist déjà vu. A male main character who is himself a film director? Check. Awkward attempts at picking up women? Yep. Machismo receiving its comeuppance? Been there, done that. The differences between the Korean director’s films, however, lie in the telling, and if his last film, “Hill of Freedom,” felt a bit too much like amusing formal gimmickry for its own sake, in “Right Now, Wrong Then,” Hong not only finds an intriguing gimmick to play with, but then proceeds to use it for genuinely revealing purposes.
That gimmick is implied by the first time its title pops up…or rather, an inversion of the film’s title: “Right Then, Wrong Now.” The correct title card pops up about halfway through, and it turns out to signal a two-part demarcation. In the film’s first half, we are introduced to the two major players: Ham Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yong), an art-house filmmaker visiting the town of Suwon for a screening of one of his films; and Yoon Hee-jong (Kim Min-hee), a shy artist whom Ham tries to pick up. Ham at first seems like he is about to be successful with Yoon, but their day together takes a disastrous turn later in the evening, leaving Yoon embarrassed and Ham revealed as the womanizer he is. Hong chronicles all of this with his usual patiently observant long takes, with an occasional quick zoom into his actors to emphasize particular gestures and/or changes in emotional temperature.
Midway through, however, “Right Now, Wrong Then” essentially starts over and replays the scenario, except with major differences. Some of those differences are formal in nature, like different camera placements for scenes seen in the first half and a complete absence of voiceover narration. But as the film’s second half goes on and we see the film build toward a more positive outcome for both Ham and Yoon, we in the audience gradually suspect that what we’re witnessing is the wish-fulfillment fantasy to the first half’s splash in the face of cold reality.
But in fact, reality-versus-wish-fulfillment is too shallow a characterization of what Hong is up to here. Note, for instance, the nature of the differences of Ham’s behavior between the two halves. In the first half, we see him saying all the positive “right” things to the shy Yoon, especially when, upon hearing her expressing doubts about her own exploratory artistic process while she’s working in her studio, he spouts off good-sounding pabulum about how his own art is based on a similar sense of not knowing the outcome while he’s working. This is what gets him in trouble later on, when, during a dinner he has with Yoon and some friends of hers, those friends note that he has said something similar repeatedly in interviews (in addition to mentioning the rumors that have spread around the media about his affairs with various female crew members over the years). During the second half, however, Ham dispenses with such niceties with Yoon, showing no fear in harshly criticizing her art and at least putting up the front of brutal honesty—a tactic that, at least in Ham’s own hopeful version of events, has the effect of increasing Yoon’s interest in him.
The implications of the compare-and-contrast twists and reversals in the second half are tantalizing to contemplate, especially regarding Ham’s character. More than suggesting what Ham believes went wrong in his attempt to court Yoon, they imply something even more unsettling about him: that by now his own artistic philosophy has become so rote that he’s simply using it as a ploy to impress the women he tries to go after. In other words, Hong’s two-part structure in “Right Now, Wrong Then,” instead of just being a cute formal trick, reveals a character’s troubled inner life in fiendishly clever ways. All of this, by the way, is handled with Hong’s customary light comic touch. As ever with this acute observer of human foibles in the game of romance, Hong manages to draw blood with the most drolly genteel of means. [A-]