Can we savor, for a moment, Hong Sang-soo's often exquisite taste in English-language film titles? On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Woman Is the Future of Man, The Day He Arrives, Hill of Freedom, and now his Golden Leopard-winning latest, Right Now, Wrong Then. Between the fittingly tossed-off nature of most Hong titles (Tale of Cinema, Night and Day, Hahaha), he sometimes interjects something really beautiful, at once conceptual and mysterious. This, of course, is the nature of the films by this great South Korean director, whose always admirable modesty of form is used—radically, it must be said—to approach stories with intricate undercurrents.
Right Now, Wrong Then actually begins mistakenly: the title is given as "Right Then, Wrong Now," a reversal of time and ethics, Hong's two guiding motifs in filmmaking. It is the story of a famous art movie director accidentally arriving a day early to the town of Sowun to show a film and attend a Q&A, and with this leisure time pursuing a young woman he finds wandering around the same historic palace. His approach, like that of many of Hong's more needy, narcissistic male heroes, is a stratagem equal parts calculated flattery and generous platitudes, describing a beautiful moral world and then attributing those values to this beautiful girl, praising her looks, her painting (she's trying to become an artist), and her motives in life. To us, his technique is obvious and hilarious, coming on so strongly and positively; an incredible drinking session done in a single long take shows that even totally skunked this man is masterfully, obsequiously on the make. In a marvelous follow-up scene, he is taken by the girl to a small party and his flirtatious drunkenness has to deal with the nightmarish realization that the women at this party have heard all about his philandering, know that the compliments he has given the girl he regularly uses in interviews to describe his own work, and the final-nail revelation that he is, in fact, married. The young woman, appalled, abandons him, and what follows is one of the most tender scenes in all of this director's work: the cad is confronted by the girl's sorrow and apologizes sincerely. The next day, after his film's screening, during his pompous final answer at the post-screening discussion, the director rejects words as "impossible" things that "get in the way" and have no relation between who he is or the world outside himself. He leaves Sowun full of bitterness and disappointment.
And then "Right Now, Wrong Then" begins: the same characters, the same locations and nearly the same scenes, but with a different approach of being. The re-imagining that follows is two things: one, inside the story, a replay of what we just saw but with the director being honest about his feelings, and two, of the film itself, a replay of what we just saw as if it were no longer an awkward comedy but rather an amusing drama, Hong Sang-soo practically playing straight. In fact, this structure is a fascinating and immediate lesson in the subtleties of direction, how different scenes could go in terms of tone and cadence. The first half is very funny and while the second half also has its moments, the main idea seems to be that without the man's solipsistic subterfuge much of this other story moves in the same direction but refuses to be sidetracked by any revelations—and without the discrepancy between what is said and done and what is true, this drama becomes less comic. The director is allowed to be more touching because he's not longer trying to present himself in the best light, and indeed the couple garner several charming moments together that were missing when he was pursuing the woman so preposterously. Yet I found myself missing his drunken boorishness, as its insincerity somehow felt more human than his directness. Both man and woman seem genuinely better after the director's attempt at honesty—forthrightness, it should be said, that despite his marriage and two kids, he loves and desires this new woman. The young woman's variations in being and response are more subtle, as she is not the film's subject, but her interaction with the director is the gauge from which we read his effect: the most important thing in the world is how men treat women.
After a late night walk home together that was impossible in the previous telling, we end again at the film screening, this time the young woman showing up after the Q&A to watch, for the first time, one of the director's films. The question arises, then, since Hong is a moral filmmaker in both senses of the word—he's interested in the morality of his characters in their world, but also in his films having coy, fable-like "morals"—how these two characters, man and woman, director and painter, behave and then exit each story. After shooting the first part of the film, Hong apparently screened it for his actors before starting the second part, an unusual gesture that points at the meta-aspect of Right Now, Wrong Then, that it's not just one story told in two different narrative and emotional possibilities, but that each strand suggests a different cinematic possibility, a different way to direct, to act, to find these characters. Thus, most cleverly, the freedom Hong suggests we have in all interactions is mirrored by his and his cast's freedom to find and re-find their own creation. As with all Hong, the pieces will re-arrange themselves even better upon re-viewing, which I very much look forward to.