Right Now, Wrong Then is only the second Hong Sang-soo film I’ve seen—the first being Hill of Freedom, which I highly recommend—but between these two works, it’s immediately noticeable that Sang-soo has a unique style of filmmaking; he embraces shooting on location, personal stories amongst quotidian narratives—eating and drinking play important roles in his films—heavy amounts of dialogue and most importantly, an almost hands-off approach to camera-work. At least, in Hill of Freedom and Right Now, Wrong Then, Sang-soo limits himself to sparse close-ups; aside from that, camera movement is nearly non-existent.
In short, a combination of a minimalist cinematic style and a focus on personal stories means that Hong Sang-soo’s films are realist dramas. The result is that all our focus is placed on the characters of his stories, because what Sang-soo is interested in is creating and exploring complex characters. I think this exploration of complex characters is especially true of Right Now, Wrong Then which is defined by a break in the middle that restarts the film but through little changes—dialogue, lighting, angles—presents an entirely different story and arguably film.
Ham Chun-su (Jung Jae-young) is an art-house film director in town for a screening and follow-up Q&A of his films. The town and what films they are or what they’re about are never told, but as I said earlier, because Sang-soo’s story is focused on characters, these small details don’t matter. What matters is that while sleeping at a temple, Ham Chun-su meets Kim Min-hee (Yoon Hee-jung), a painter and former model. Chun-su strikes up a conversation with Min-hee and what follows can perhaps best be compared to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. There are a few key differences, however. Unlike the protagonists of the Before trilogy, Chun-su and Min-hee are awkward—really awkward. Chun-su fidgets, stutters, and unabashedly conceals vital information from Min-hee, such as the fact that he is married. While Chun-su overtakes Min-hee with his aggressive personality, she is defined by her meekness and lack of confidence. But to simply leave these characterizations at that would be an injustice to the film.
In a comedic nod towards its own name, the initial title card for Right Now, Wrong Then calls itself Wrong Now, Right Then. It’s an acknowledgement that the events thereafter are, for lack of better words, wrong. In its atmosphere, the beginnings of Right Now, Wrong Then feel off. In his awkward approaching of Min-hee and his characterization—we learn that Chun-su is a womanizer—Chun-su comes off as a creep. Once the film restarts and correctly labels itself Right Now, Wrong Then, however, there is a significant change in atmosphere, most notably through the dialogue.
Min-hee is much more confident in her personality. Take for example the scene in which the two decide to go get coffee. Chun-su offers to carry Min-hee’s bag and before the two leave the temple, he looks inside it. The first time around, Min-hee says nothing. The second time, Chun-su looks inside the bag, and Min-hee questions why he would be so rude. Chun-su is also made different by his being much more open with Min-hee. The second time around he’s much more open and honest with her and while at times it does land him in trouble or embarrass him, he’s made into a much more likeable person resulting in a chemistry with Min-hee that works.
Right Now, Wrong Then’s repetition of the narrative may initially draw connections to Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993), a film which forced its protagonist to repeat the same day for comedic effect, but I find that Right Now, Wrong Then is much closer to Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards than it is to Groundhog Day. In Three Resurrected Drunkards, Oshima repeats the film because certain scenarios for the film’s protagonists don’t go the right way. At one point, the gesture of one’s face as they die becomes a running gag: one character repeats to another, “No, not that way. It’s done like this.” In this sense, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a whole host of right now, wrong then scenarios.
But Three Resurrected Drunkards is a political film and a film about film—Oshima makes an appearance towards the end to which one character exclaims, “This is your fault!”—and Right Now, Wrong Then isn’t a political film and not necessarily a film about cinema. The repetition of the narrative in Right Now, Wrong Then can be seen in two ways.
The first reading of the repetition of the narrative is that the title means that the characters are acting out of character and so the scenario is wrong. The second time around then, the characters are behaving like themselves. The second reading of the title and of the repeating story is not that one story is wrong and the other right but that both are correct. If Sang-soo’s films are about the exploration of complex characters, then these two-halves of the story create a whole that result in that complexity. Min-hee is both shy, meek, and yet confident. Likewise, Chun-su is a womanizer, a liar but also honest in a way that makes him inspirational and likeable for Min-hee.
In creating a film that is about exploring complex characters, Right Now, Wrong Then does more than just repeat the narrative. While Sang-soo’s cinematic technique embraces a minimalist style, the effects of when he does decide to move the camera are powerfully effective. Sang-soo’s use of the close-up, for example, eliminate all other objects and characters from the frame, leaving only those who he wishes to focus on. It is worth nothing that the world of Right Now, Wrong Then is already empty. There’s a significant lack of background activity in otherwise populated places, such as bars, cafes, and temples. That may be because Sang-soo’s technique is to use only what is essential and his use of close-up allows him to achieve just that. The scene will begin with the camera at a mid-shot, so we’re given Chun-su, Min-hee and their surrounding background. As the conversation progresses, Sang-soo will slowly zoom-in until Chun-su and Min-hee are the only ones to occupy the frame, their backs nearly breaking out of the edge of the picture. For Sang-soo, cinema is immediately about and focused on characters–nothing else.