RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN
(2016, Hong Sang-soo)
[Korean Film Festival Australia 2016]
[4.5 out of 5 stars]
Director Hong Sang-soo presents a romantic encounter between a film director and a painter. They talk about life, love, and work over sushi and soju. On its own, it’s a pretty simple narrative but Hong takes it further by splitting the film in two and showing the same encounter twice.
The first hour shows their first meeting in a temple between film director Ham (Jae-yeong Jeong) and painter Yoon (Min-hee Kim). In the second part of the film - divided by the second appearance of the film’s title flipped from Right Then, Wrong Now to Right Now, Wrong Then - we witness a reintroduction of the same characters more or less doing the same things they were doing in the first part but with the addition of honesty and awareness. Sometimes brutal, at times refreshing honesty. Sometimes painful, at times valuable awareness.
While in her studio Yoon asks Ham’s thoughts on her painting. In the first part, he awkwardly tiptoes around the discussion by offering practiced niceties and forced compliments - he wants to give an amiable impression to this pretty girl he’s just met. In the second part, he’s more open about her shortcomings as a painter and it ends with an argument.
He presents visions of the same circumstance and it mirrors the way our brains work during social interactions - or at least in the way my own brain does. As a helplessly sensitive introvert and master over-analyser, my brain tends to conjure up what else could be in this situation as I’m living it. The words that spill out of my mouth are usually different to the words floating in my head, waiting to come out but stopped because I want to make a good impression on the person I’m talking to. The same scene plays in my head at the same time I’m seeing it unfold but it replays either as something I’d rather happen or as something I fear would happen. Does anyone else do this?
In ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’, Umberto Eco states that "every reception of a work of art is both an interpretation and a performance of it because in every reception the work takes on a fresh perspective for itself.” By creating a dichotomy of a single encounter, Hong shows us the performance of said encounter and his own (or perhaps the character’s own) interpretation of it. Films follow a script, the fate of the characters are sealed but what if it isn’t, the director asks. What if there’s a second chance, or why is one way enough. It’s reported that during filming, the first hour was shot first, edited and then shown to the actors before they shot the second hour. This may be a deliberate choice by the directors because, in the second half, the characters seem to be more aware of the situation rather than just living in it and reacting as they normally, or would be expected to.
Interactions tend to have dual occurrences: the actual experience of it and the thinking, interpreting and dreaming of the same experience. The director presents this feeling so acutely and in such a cinematic way as he wisely offers us both versions and thus magnifies the malleability of the universe in that even the most minute alteration can have dramatic and life-changing consequences. When the pair end up at a small party in a friend’s cafe the first ‘performance’ shows Ham being questioned by the host about his past flings with his female fans and his marriage, which he neglected to tell Yoon. With this realisation, her gaze goes blank and the sweetness of their interactions beforehand disintegrates. Hong zooms in to her face and he barely scrapes the side of the frame. In the second ‘interpretation’, Ham tells her about his marriage prior to the party, and once they arrive at the party, she’s absent in the scene. She knows. She’s aware. It’s a luxury we all wish we had as we dive into romances and relationships - the ability to really know the other person before we fall in love with them.
The pair drink plenty of alcohol into the night and the reset in the latter half plays like a hangover - an internal reenactment of yesterday by remedying the regrets through honesty and candidness. The result is that the first half plays more sweetly and frankly more normal and the second half is matter-of-fact and genuine.
I can’t tell which one is the happier version. I can’t even say which one I would prefer to experience. The film doesn’t ask us to choose but wouldn’t it be great if we can. Subjectivity is celebrated in this film by his inquisitive camera as it freely zooms and pans across the space - a camera with a perspective of its own. Told and structured in the way it is, it shows that in the sheer linearity of life, there is an alternate.