Right Now, Wrong Then (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da)

Korea (2015) Dir. Hong Sang-Soo

If the gossip columns are to be believed there is a certain amount of “life imitating art” to be found in this recent entry from Korean auteur Hong Sang-Soo, which also poses the indeterminable “chicken and egg” question.

Split into two parts, Right Now, Wrong Then begins with arthouse film director (what else?) Ham Cheon-soo (Jung Jae-young) arriving in Suwon a day earlier for a screening of his latest film. While killing time, Cheon-soo becomes smitten with and makes the acquaintance of Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), a former model and painter who recognises Cheon-soo’s name when he introduces himself.

They spend the afternoon together drinking, eating sushi and Hee-jung showing off her paintings. In the evening they meet up with Hee-jung’s friends but after too much drink, Cheon-soo is coerced into revealing something that upsets Hee-Jung. In the second half – the title now reversed to Right Then, Wrong Now the story repeats itself almost scene-for-scene but with subtle differences in the personalities leading to a different outcome.

Hong is an interesting director in that he rarely strays too far from his own doorstep in terms of characterisations and set-ups for his films, and this is no different. With very few exceptions, most of his male protagonists have been film directors of the arthouse variety and there is almost always a young woman involved to provide friendship and possible companionship too.

What makes this instance a little different is that Hong and leading lady Kim Min-hee embarked on a well publicised affair that effectively ruined Hong’s thirty year marriage. According to the aggrieved Mrs. Hong, who went public about the affair, the dialogue and sentiments of Cheon-soo are Hong’s true feelings towards Kim, essentially having her acting in Hong’s open love letter to her.

How much of this is relevant to enjoying or understanding the film depends on one’s prior knowledge of the real life affair; when it was released it wasn’t a public concern so audiences could judge the film on Hong’s reputation for his esoteric look at how relationships happen. Watching it under the cloud of this scandal and it can be seen in a less positive and more curious light.

Yet in the second half of the film when it goes into Groundhog Day mode, it seems that Hong is questioning his own judgement on this by changing the tact of both characters to one of honesty and openness. In the first half Cheon-soo tries hard to flatter Hee-jung and say everything he thinks she wants to hear, only to fall at the last hurdle when his marriage is revealed.

In round two, Cheon-soo hides nothing when he learns his lines aren’t washing with Hee-jung especially once they’ve had a few drinks and the previously passive painter fires back at his feeble platitudes. In a scene where Hee-jung paints, Cheon-soo spins her some pretentious cobblers in praise to curry her favour, the second time sees Cheon-soo be carefully critical which causes Hee-jung to flare up and bite his head off.

This is just a small example of how Hong flips everything around yet manages to keep the story on track while heading towards a different conclusion. Applying the onus of the aforementioned situation of the illicit affair, the inference is that Hong appears to be weighing up his options in how to conduct himself and is exploring the various outcomes in the only way he knows how.

Perhaps not the best way to go but as Hong himself opines in the script, artists are a funny bunch. Cheon-soo is a gangly, unassuming man with a Bieber hair cut and despite  being welcomed as a “famous” director he doesn’t exude much charisma. One wouldn’t peg him as a would be lothario but you know what they say about the quiet ones. It’s not that Cheon-soo is necessarily lecherous, rather unfulfilled and in need of reassurance of his worth as a lover.

Hee-jung is equally non-descript but with the location being sparsely inhabited on that day, she would stand out to Cheon-soo. In both parts she appears timorous and lacking in self-esteem, only she swallows the compliments on her beauty in the first half while swatting them away in the second. This is odd for a former model whose worth is in her looks but she admits on both occasions she didn’t feel comfortable in that line of work.

Both segments plead their case very well in how the situation should play out, and address the consequences of the actions of the two leads. The audience is then left to ponder which is the one that either speaks the most truth or is the most relatable. There is no moral agenda here (despite the off screen issues) in depicting either character and the tone is certainly not judgemental, simply presenting the scenarios as they are.

True to Hong’s inimitable style, much of the discussion is held over drinks or during a smoking session, while the camera zooms in and out on a whim, putting the audience in that uncomfortable voyeuristic zone. Apparently in the drinking scenes, real alcohol was imbibed so the cast really were squiffy and not acting, making it a miracle they remembered their lines!

Jung Jae-young won a few awards for his performance as Cheon-soo, a far cry from his big budget movie roles yet an astutely observed turn as a meek looking man with a ravenous libido and fragile ego. Kim Min-hee shows her versatility in a role equally far removed from the glamorous siren in The Handmaiden, make-up free and dowdy in dress, yet quietly enigmatic with a natural air about her.

Forgive the choice of words but if you can divorce the scandal from this film then Right Now, Wrong Then is another droll observation on life from Hong; if not this is Hong truly laying himself bare on screen, trying to answer his own questions.

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