[Milwaukee Film Festival] Hong Sang-soo’s “Right Now, Wrong Then” Plays a Midwestern Room

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I love seeing Hong Sang-soo movies at U.S. festivals, because there’s always that moment when the person behind you suddenly realizes that something subtle and weird has happened.

Two minutes later, they think they have it all figured out. But they’re more alert than they were previously. They’re really paying attention now.

Then the person to their left starts questioning the same thing while the person to their left starts frantically whispering to their spouse, thinking that by nailing down some cultural or cinematic fact between the two of them they’ll finally be able to pin down what they’re supposed to be thinking and feeling. Meanwhile, the person next to you is wondering whether the film is actually broken and has started playing again, or if in fact it’s entirely over and they should start applauding now.

But before the room starts getting too restless, something else subtle and weird has happened: A gentle interplay between the two characters onscreen, a telling facial expression, a play of gestures or an English subtitle that can’t be mistaken for anything other than successfully translated humor causes everyone to start laughing, almost against their will. Despite this, it’s a thoughtful laughter, an aware laughter. Some code has been broken, if not the whole language and culture barrier.

Yes, something classed as “experimental” is happening, but this is not an experiment.

It’s a carefully constructed fiction that’s considerate of the fact that it’s being watched.

Perhaps Hong Sang-soo’s early days as a director delved more into the genuinely experimental. Even then, though, I think he was more into re-arranging fantasies and realities as they occur in the mind than in poking an audience with philosophical or scientific realities, which is the kind of thing we often expect from timelines repeating and events being reworked before our eyes.

Hong’s approach is warm and humane as the main American point of reference for this kind of thing, Groundhog DayTo give you an idea of just how pervasive of a comparison that is, RogerEbert.com, IndieWire, DramaFeverTime Out, Variety and Paste have all used it regarding Hong’s most recent film, 지금은맞고그때는틀리다, or Right Now, Wrong Then. And that’s not even everybody.

This doesn’t mean that his film actually resembles Groundhog Day in any important way. It’s simply the main premise of the get-it-right do-over that resonates. In terms of stylistic chops, he’s most commonly compared to the French New Wave director Éric Rohmer, whose sparse sets, auteur sensibilities and dialogue-heavy scenes are echoed in Hong’s own work.

This isn’t a new comparison to be made, however. Like Nabokov did to an extent and talked of doing, Hong has often seemed to be reworking the same material over and over throughout his career, refining it even with the occasional misstep. One of his favorite devices is that of hitting the replay button.

In the second half of Right Now, Wrong Then, a man and a woman are having the same conversation we have already seen them having, only the camera is shifted a few feet to the left. Or is it? Is that what he said the first time, or is it slightly different? Oh, this is definitely different. Like the first time, it’s funny, but for other reasons. Things seem to be going worse, but somehow also better.

The story in Right Now, Wrong Then, such as it exists, begins simply: A film director meets a woman while lodging in an unfamiliar town to speak at a festival. He introduces himself, learns she’s a painter, asks her out for coffee and winds up drinking into the evening with her. At a certain point, they’re drunk and talking about the possibility of being in love. This sounds banal, but it’s both genuinely funny and odd enough to be touching.

Their conversation devolves into the kind of intoxicated confessional free-for-all that seems like it could turn dangerous or depressing at any moment: She admits that she has no friends and bemoans the fact. He insists he would ask her to marry him if he had a ring. Still, a kind of simple goodwill hangs between the two that seems to rob their mood swings of any real danger.

The mystery of the plot lies in which of the male lead’s actions are “right” and “wrong,” a subject that unfolds further once we have a more concrete basis for comparison. Right Now, Wrong Then is an accessible and intelligent film, and these two descriptors do not contradict. While neither condescending or obtuse, this is a movie that guides its audience to learn how watch it—to come to a genuine understanding about what’s funny, objectionable and appealing based on the evidence presented.

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