Hong Sang-soo’s films are so openly similar to one another that they often seem to run together in one’s mind, their worlds an agreeably homogenous accumulation of wryly interchangeable neurotic directors, pretty girls, awkward encounters, and extended drinking sessions. While Right Now, Wrong Then isn’t a departure as such, it’s also isn’t more of the same, functioning, if anything, as a subtle dig at those who deem the art of variation to be no such thing. A neurotic film director does indeed meet a pretty girl on a trip to a film festival, but the two impeccably calibrated permutations of their encounter that Hong serves up shift the focus somewhere else entirely, namely on to the more abstract question of character versus circumstance. Is any meeting truly unique? Does the nature of a connection really hinge on specific moments? And are we actually different people in different situations?
The film presents itself as two apparently separate entities, opening with the titles of “Right Then, Wrong Now” before the titles for “Right Now, Wrong Then” roll almost exactly an hour later, the inversion in the name alone indicating that, though each part contains the same elements, their actual meaning isn’t necessarily the same. In both parts, Ham Chun-su (Jung Jae-young) has been asked to present a film at a festival in Suwon, but a schedule change has left him with a whole day to kill. Drinking coffee in front of a palace, a woman catches his eye: Yoon Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), a painter and former model who’s never seen one of his films, but is nonetheless drawn to his fame. They eventually meet and end up spending the day together, having coffee, taking a trip to her studio, drinking over dinner, and attending a party—a directionless train of non-events whose every innocuous detail suddenly invites scrutiny once the narrative bifurcation asserts itself.
Spotting and processing the countless differences between the parts offers pleasures on various levels. There’s a constant curiosity as to where exactly the two mirror-image plots will deviate from one another, how big these deviations will be, and which comments, omissions, or confessions will trigger each deviation in the first place. And this narrative curiosity is magnified by an equally acute visual one; tracking all the subtle changes in framing, camera movements, and lighting between both parts is diverting in itself and a sly way of making the viewer reflect on how form impinges on the plot as well as our perception of it. Does a meeting in the sun release different feelings than one devoid of sunlight, does partitioning different parts of the same conversation via zooms change its meaning, and does your judgment of a painting alter when green paint is added to it rather than orange? Hong keeps all these myriad, often minute shifts in perfect balance, constantly disrupting the flow of the encounter even as its direction remains essentially unchanged.
Yet all these canny modifications would be entirely pointless if the plot on which they rest weren’t as affecting as it is. Ham and Hee-jung meet in a wintry Suwon that’s strangely emptied out of people and exudes the same sense of quiet melancholy as the characters themselves, with the bursts of mordant ridiculousness Hong occasionally inserts into their encounter never quite able to leaven the mood. As becomes clear across the film’s two parts, neither of the protagonists are particularly happy with their lot, with their hope of finding some sort of escape in the other imbuing their encounter with a charge all the more painful for the fact that it will likely be extinguished. Often asked to perform in lengthy unbroken takes, the actors rise to the challenge beautifully, bringing a coherence to the different, often contradictory facets of their characters that ultimately holds the film together. While both the director and the painter can at times feel like different people in the two different parts, the actors make these disparities feel entirely natural, as if all people were capable of being several things at once.
Related to Hong’s previous films, Right Now, Wrong Then is a more focused variation than most, the sliced-down-the-middle bifurcation demanding a steely precision absent from some of his more freewheeling works. But there’s one scene in particular which perfectly illustrates how a fresh combination of a familiar box of tricks can still hit with the force of a small explosion, when a typically awkward café discussion veers into blank despair once Hong zooms onto Hee-jung’s stricken face. Perhaps that’s the true, oddly rueful lesson here: What feels wrong in one place can feel very much right elsewhere.