RIGHT NOW, WRONG THEN (Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da) A-
South Korea (121 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Hong Sang-soo
South Korea (121 mi) 2015 ‘Scope d: Hong Sang-soo
Hong Sang-soo was born in Korea but got a bachelor’s degree at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and his masters at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Making films since 1996, Hong is known for complicated narratives, sometimes showing the same events twice, each time through a different character's eyes, but also for the most obnoxious male characters on the planet, usually grotesquely overbearing, with bad manners and a tendency to get drunk and hop into bed with younger girls, usually they are artists like film directors or professors sleeping with younger students, where they perform miserably if at all. Impotency is a key ingredient, even if only psychological, as his characters mostly remain in a state of emotionally repressed inertia. He's certainly a minimalist, writes his own films, and remains perhaps the last of the independent film movement left in South Korea. He's left alone to make art films that exist in his own universe, though NIGHT AND DAY (2008) was partially financed by France and was filmed in Paris. Critics love to call him the Eric Rohmer of the East, as his films are nearly all dialogue, examining relationships in much the same way, but this is misleading, as Hong is far more confrontational in his use of deluded and misbehaving men, using complex narrative schemes that result in a more experimental style all his own, as his films are a devastating critique of befuddled male abhorrence, where it’s fair to say the abominable behavior on display is universal, the ultimate power play option where men are constantly trying to get the upper hand even while they’re flailing away in utter futility. They simply refuse to admit their weaknesses, even when they’re caught in the act. None of his films register as a Wow factor, instead they are all low key, intimate, and conversational. He has an extremely naturalistic style of storytelling, creating a compelling atmosphere, especially a complete lack of artifice, which he uses to shoot among the best sex sequences in the modern era, as there are simply no inhibitions. But men are boorish and women are mysteriously attracted to their authority. The director’s first 8 films were all shown in Chicago, either at Facets or the Film Festival until 2008, bursting onto the scene with distinguished flair and imagination, but then haven’t been seen since though he’s continued to make one film a year. Now releasing his 17th feature film, the last 8 have all been shown at the New York Film Festival, while none have screened in Chicago. In June at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York even screened a retrospective of his entire feature-length output (The Hong Sang-soo Retrospective Is a Must-See - The New Yorker).
Hong has always had a fascination with mirror images, treading the same ground twice, allowing characters to see themselves differently, where this slight variation on a theme often leads to startling results, where he finds moments of gripping honesty that come out of nowhere, like a shock to the system. Shooting in a tableaux style, the camera remains affixed, usually to a tiny, enclosed space, often holding for extended sequences, allowing the scenes to develop, and perhaps at the last moment the camera will veer up into the trees or sky or distant landscape, once again holding the shot, or zoom onto a specific object of focus, such as a face, allowing the emotional state of mind to register. In this way, the director decides what the audience sees and notices, carefully making subtle changes at appropriate moments, inevitably changing the outcome significantly with almost surgical precision. Many claim Woody Allen has been making the same film for successive decades, with only slight variations. The same can be said for Hong, though far fewer people see his films, which have just about become an endangered species, as his top-grossing film until now has been IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (2012), featuring international star extraordinaire Isabelle Huppert in the lead role, raking in a grand total of $25,000. So this guy operates on a completely different wavelength than what we’re used to, often dealing with modern routine and repetition, yet showing a surprising amount of originality. Like a puzzle piece that all fits together in the grand scheme of things, he operates with almost mathematical certainty, continually changing the players, shifting their focus of attention, yet the prevailing themes are immediately recognizable, an adherence to social customs, male power and vanity on display, the elusiveness of love, the difficulty of sustaining relationships, violating moral boundaries, a refusal to learn from past mistakes, leading to regrets, apologies, moments of tenderness, and personal torment, as he’s an extraordinary playwright who continues to explore the human condition by finding a seemingly unlimited variation of new possibilities. While one might think being away from his films for nearly a decade it would be easy to fall out of the rhythm and visual language of his cinematic style, where memory plays so heavily in the slight shifts and variations from film to film, instead it felt like “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” as there was a renewed appreciation for what we’ve been missing all along, which is a director that shuns pretense and commercialism, but instead insists upon exploring how people operate within themselves, using a Jacques Demy choreography of missed opportunities, showing how easily the choices we make might lead to another direction, where he loves to compare parallel storylines, each one a distinct possibility, where there’s no one single existing reality, but a merging of what takes place only in the imagination and what actually happens, where it’s up to each individual viewer to distinguish the difference.
What’s amusing, yet tragically profound, is how this film reveals Hong’s autobiographical arc, as he has in real life finally become a character from one of his own films, breaking from the years of routine and repetition, in this case 30 years of marriage, to run off with the female star of one of his films, Kim Min-hee, who is twenty years younger, declaring his love for her and his intent to start a new life. This has caused such a major scandal in Korea that it has become tabloid fodder, with both at the center of attention in what can only be described as a moral dilemma. Besides being an actress, Kim was a spokesperson for a line of cosmetics, but after public adultery was exposed, she was immediately dropped with the company demanding compensation for back pay. Meanwhile Hong’s longtime wife is outraged, claiming her husband is failing to support their own daughter, claiming he is no longer paying for her education abroad as he needs to support his new girlfriend, covering for her unexpected financial loss. Back and forth texts between Hong’s wife and Kim’s mother have been made public, with one claiming the other should have been a better parent, while the other reminded the irate wife that she is having difficulty raising her own daughter. Like Woody Allen and his 1992 breakup fiasco with Mia Farrow, running away with one of her own adopted daughters, declaring his undying love, while at the same time fending off charges of child molestation that have stuck with him throughout his lifetime, let’s just agree that this is another huge mess, though Hong’s wife indicated she had some inkling something was up after watching this film, with its own stark revelations, where truth and fiction intersect. It is perhaps no coincidence that the lead male role is an art film director, Ham Chun-su (Jung Je-young), visiting the city of Suwon for a screening of his most recent film, where he is invited to participate in a Q & A discussion. The title card interestingly reads, “Right Then, Wrong Now,” a distinct play on words suggesting something is out of place. Arriving a day early, as the event was pushed back a day, he mulls around town visiting historic sites, including an ancient palace, carrying hot coffee in a cup to warm him from the winter chill in the air, where he soon notices an attractive girl, Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), introducing himself, where he’s surprised to discover she recognizes his name as a noted director, inviting her for coffee, learning she is a former model that decided she was much happier instead spending her days painting, though it leaves her alone and isolated for much of the time. Pressing to see her work, they retreat to her art studio, which happens to be nearby, describing her paintings as loosely going with the flow without an inherent plan, which is also how he describes his movies, believing they have something in common. While obviously attracted to her, making that plain for her to see, he seems more interested in drawing her out of her shell, yet hides his real intentions behind pleasantries and flattering politeness, while she remains shy, quietly hidden behind a customary wall of reserve. Working up an appetite, they go out for sushi, which includes a heavy dose of soju (rice alcohol), making toasts to one another, before heading off to a café where a friend is having a party. Imbibing in still more alcohol, he inadvertently blurts out more than is discreet, causing Hee-jung to excuse herself, as his constant attention is making her uncomfortable. Both having drunk too much, they depart on separate paths.
The next day at the screening shows amusing aftereffects, as in front of a scant few, Chun-su suffers an emotional meltdown, still hung-over from the previous night’s drinking binge, erupting in anger at having to describe in one sentence what his films are attempting to convey, floundering for a while before gaining momentum, where his words only grow more aggressive and inflammatory, as if it’s ludicrous to even attempt such a thing, claiming his films have always fought “against” words, eventually walking out of his own film discussion, having reached a breaking point. Once outside, having a smoke, he rails against the insipid shallowness of the film critic on the podium, describing him as “ignorant,” absolving himself of any responsibility for the incident before returning back to Seoul. Retracing its steps, the film begins again with a different title card reading “Right Now, Wrong Then,” as the two meet in front of the palace, head off for coffee and tea before visiting her art studio. This time Chun-su is more demonstrative, calling her work utterly conventional, as she refuses to challenge herself, suggesting she may need to reevaluate her artistic motives. She is floored and dumbstruck by these remarks, which he quickly apologizes for afterwards, suggesting he needs some air to smoke. As he steps out the door, she asks if all directors are like that. Grinning sheepishly to himself, he responds, “Yes, we are.” Surprisingly, she takes more interest in him when he’s inconsiderate and wrenchingly honest, even to the point of being brutally cruel. This time, in the drunken conversation over sushi and soju, Chun-su passionately declares his love for her, like uttering a personal proclamation, but then collapses into a heap of embarrassment and personal torment by revealing he’s married and has kids (a pertinent piece of information that was not revealed the first time around), which seems to have a crushing effect upon him. Although consumed by tears, he once again declares his love, making sure there is no misunderstanding. Overheated by all the drama, he needs to step outside to clear his head, welcoming the blustery winter cold. At the party, Hee-jung quickly excuses herself, claiming she’s drunk too much, leaving Chun-su to make a spectacle of himself, as he hilariously removes every stitch of clothing to several terrified women who react in horror, utterly petrified by what they see. This panicked confusion is followed by Chun-su and Hee-jung leaving together, where they wonder if they need to invent a lie or create an acceptable explanation to avoid moral suspicion, which is equally amusing, considering what just happened. Once outside, Chun-su suggests they take a taxi to Kangwon Province (a reference to his second film), which she readily agrees to, but then both lose their courage when a taxi arrives but is pointed in the wrong direction. Several more taxis go by just crossing the street, so they end up walking instead down dimly lit, narrow streets that are completely empty in the late hours as they approach her house when Hee-jung receives an anxious call on her cellphone from her mother, wondering if she was with that “madman” from the party earlier, as one of the girls obviously described him as a lunatic that took all his clothes off in front of them. Scrutinizing him afterwards, she curiously asks what got into him, but they’re both still too inebriated to make a fuss. Not yet ready to say goodbye, still flush with the adrenaline of possibilities, Chun-su urges her to go in, but come back outside, suggesting he’ll wait in the bitter cold. Promising to do exactly that, she goes inside, with her mother greeting her at the door, while Chun-su has a smoke in the bitter cold, still standing in a nearby alley, which also references his fourth film TURNING GATE (2002), where a gentleman suitor waits hopefully in an alley waiting for a girl to step outside her family home. In each case, they wait in vain, as Chun-su, showing no patience, quickly exits. The next day there is no meltdown at his screening, no verbal jousting, instead he stands around outside the building smoking with friends, accepting all flattery that is directed his way, which includes greeting Hee-jung’s arrival, as she eagerly anticipates viewing his first film, vowing to watch his others as well, again, both going their separate ways.