Right Now, Wrong Then

Review by Matthew Eng

Directed by

Hong Sang-soo

Starring

Jae-yeong Jeong Min-hee Kim Yeo-jeong Yoon

Anticipation.

A warm and generous festival reception promises peak Sang-soo.

Enjoyment.

Lusciously-acted and masterfully-scripted. A first date capable of both raising your spirits and breaking your heart.

In Retrospect.

An exquisitely intimate reminder that more films (and filmmakers) should prize deep feeling over flash.

The latest from South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo is a romance so lovely it needs to be told twice.

Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then has been billed as an “anti-romance” – a label that isn’t quite true, although it isn’t firmly a love story either. It has some of the funniest moments of any film this year, but it also features scenes of such heart-rending sadness that you couldn’t possibly call it a comedy.

Good romantic comedies are so few and far between these days that the against-the-grain existence of the South Korean writer/director’s latest is a blessing for audiences who enjoy seeing likeable human characters fall in love on screen. Jeong Jae-yeong stars as Cheon-soo, a well-known, slightly smug filmmaker who arrives in Suwon a day early for a university screening of one of his movies. Deciding to explore the city on his own, he wanders into an old palace and comes across Hee-jeong (the superb Kim Min-hee), a young, melancholic model-turned-painter who hasn’t seen any of his films but has heard promising things. They spend the day together: lounging around in her studio, eating sushi, getting wasted, attending a party at her friends’ home. But then Cheon-soo says something that puts a drag on the date and their flirtation is bungled.

Were the film to end there, it would still be a lovely missed connection, tinged with real romance and ruefulness. But Sang-soo has more experimental means in mind and the film suddenly resets, retelling Cheon-soo and Hee-jeong’s rendezvous in the same setting but with slyly pronounced differences in the characters’ emotions, responses, and circumstances. A glowing review from the first half becomes a cutting critique in the second. A meeting of friends goes comically awry. And yet these aren’t diametrically dissimilar encounters. He’s still something of an operator, yet somehow more heavily besotted. She’s still palpably unhappy, but also less inclined to quell her frustrations or stomach his bullshit.

Sang-soo is a filmmaker who has long been interested in rebuking cinematic traditions of time, viewpoint and narrative structure. In Right Now, Wrong Then, he has found the perfect prickly blend of these defiant instincts. His film has the same frisky, dawdling spirit of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, in fact it’s sort of like watching two Before Sunrises for the price of one, even though this singular diptych ultimately proves even more adept at expanding the world beyond its central pair.

In presenting two subtly different versions of same story, Sang-soo fully immerses us in Cheon-soo and Hee-jeong, plumbing them through the acute and noodly observations of his writing and the deftness of Park Hong-yeol’s camerawork, all unfussy static shots and purposeful zooms. He frequently lingers on the actors in smooth long takes that afford them the freedom to casually compose their characters in the moment, enabling reactions of pleasingly unfiltered spontaneity. You can put together the fragments of Cheon-soo’s backstory in the fidgety manner in which Jae-yeong dodges a question and piece together Hee-jeong’s history through the delicate expressions that Min-hee hides from everyone, except us.

There’s simply more than meets the eye in Sang-soo’s latest gem. You can turn it in any direction or look at it from any angle and there is invariably a new streak of colour you have yet to see.

Published 24 Jun 2016

Tags: Korean Cinema South Korean Cinema

Anticipation.

A warm and generous festival reception promises peak Sang-soo.

Enjoyment.

Lusciously-acted and masterfully-scripted. A first date capable of both raising your spirits and breaking your heart.

In Retrospect.

An exquisitely intimate reminder that more films (and filmmakers) should prize deep feeling over flash.

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