Currently screening at Facets Cinematheque is Hong Sang-soo’s new film, Right Now, Wrong Then. I placed it at my number one spot back in January when I was doing a countdown on my most anticipated films of the year. And despite my initial fears that the film would not make its way to a Chicagoland theater, it’s a genuine feat of artistic heroism on the part of Charles Coleman and his programming team at Facets to book the film for a weeklong run.
I caught Right Now, Wrong Then this past weekend – my first time catching a Hong film in a theater. I’m happy to report that the film exceeds even my most lofty of expectations, ringing cherries throughout its runtime and possessing the sort of disarming charm that disguises its massive depths. For those familiar with Hong’s previous work, the film bares many of his signature concerns and themes, realized through Cheon-soo (Jeong Jae-yeong), an art-house film director, and an ingénue student named Hee-jeong (Kim Min-hee). The two proceed wistfully through their day and into the evening, liquid courage lubricating the wheels of conversation as they share their time in each other’s company with certain harsh truths coming to light.
For the first half of Right Now, Wrong Then’s runtime you’ll be awash in the memories of films made by Eric Rohmer, Yasujirō Ozu, and Richard Linklater. But what separates Hong Sang-soo, and what makes him one of the most accomplished and exciting of contemporary directors is his whimsical sense of humor, often shifting the temporal setting or changing perspectives in both blunt and subtle ways. Right Now, Wrong Then presents itself as a most curious object in both how clearly it establishes a different timeline while simultaneously testing its audience on distinguishing one perspective from the other.
As disaster strikes Cheon-soo as he courts Hee-jeong in the first story, the second narrative sees Cheon-soo as more honest, clearly more concerned with engaging Hee-jeong as a contemporary rather than a sexual conquest. The difference is most clearly depicted in a conversation about one of Hee-jeong’s paintings: in the first narrative, the audience sees Hee-jeong at work, making subtle changes to a piece, as Cheon-soo placates her with rehearsed lallations over how much courage she has as an artist. The empty platitudes bite him in the ass later. In the second narrative, honesty prevails, when Cheon-soo challenges Hee-jeong with some bitter truths on her capacity as an artist. This spurs a heated argument between the two, but their relationship is stronger for it; and tellingly, the audience is not privy to the image this time around, suggesting that Cheon-soo is indeed engaging with the work – and by extension, Hee-jeong – on a personal level.
What comes from all this is an immensely rewarding and psychologically attuned study of what it means to be honest with one another. The pleasant optimism of the second narrative is a particular highlight, not simply for being one of those rare feel-good moments in Hong’s cinema, but also for its rejection of male-oriented fantasies. By the film’s end, you’re questioning whether the spectacle of joy associated with seeing Cheon-soo and Hee-jeong together is his or her reality. And then you wonder why it can’t be both.