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Depict a pair of people walking into a building, twice, but change the camera on each move. There’s something to be said for the lack of trust between these two people. We don’t see their faces, and aren’t sure how to feel about them in that moment. But film the scene again, with the camera pulling back in front of them, and you see their faces, body language, their curiosity about one another. It’s amazing what camera placement will do for a scene. That is Right Now, Wrong Then’s design.
Hong Sang-soo’s Right Now, Wrong Then double-dips into the strange, awkward social life of a man looking for lust. The film becomes a comic statement on choices, and how the finest details in a situation can lead to success or futility. The idea’s relatively simple: Take a story and tell it twice over two hours.
But the way Right Now, Wrong Then yields different results, moods, and beats as the result of minor shake-ups in the opening scenes is beyond fascinating, often charming, and at times amusingly uncomfortable. Pay close attention to Right Now, Wrong Then’s little things. If the thought of watching a horn-dog hit on a girl twice makes you recoil in terror (and it will), you can pass, but know this is the best film about choices and outcomes this side of Run Lola Run.
Here the basic outline remains the same at the beginning of each telling: Ham (Jae-yeong Jeong), a noteworthy South Korean director, is stranded and a little bored, and attempts to woo a girl. He’s been invited to a small town for an even smaller film festival that’s planning to celebrate his work. Ham came a day early, is restless, and needs distractions. He wanders to a local prayer center, narrating his internal monologue. It’s a gray, chilly day in a quiet place, so what else is there to do but smoke and wander?
Yoon (Min-hee Kim) is an attractive young artist that draws Ham’s eye. She comes in with her banana milk, just looking to sit and think. Ham can’t resist saying hello.
Both times he begins shyly, waiting to brag that he’s a director. Both times they retreat to a coffee shop, but with entirely different dialogues. Both times the director and artist go back to her studio to view paintings, and out to dinner for sashimi and to get loaded as just the worst pick-up lines and compliments are exchanged. (Ever see a fraternity boy pitifully repeat how beautiful the object of their affection is? Ham can’t stop saying that to Yoon. It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion, twice, and it’s breathtaking.)
Right Now, Wrong Then plays out each scene again, with stilted zooms, and long (very long) takes, but in different contexts. Only in the final legs of each telling do the results greatly differ, but it’s a long time coming. The way Ham describes Yoon’s art elicits anger one time, then bashful appreciation in another. When Ham elects to share personal information, sooner or later it has a huge impact on how Yoon views the director.
Watching a man yearn for a woman isn’t the defining characteristic of the film; it’s the many intersections and little differences at play that will find Right Now, Wrong Then a place in narrative studies courses. The film understands how interactions and phrasings can make a huge difference, how the timing of shared information can alter someone’s perception of you. Luck, simple gestures, and tone of voice all count in the limited time and space of first attraction. Sometimes all the boozy compliments in the world won’t get you in to bed with the object of your affections, but at least there’s always the hope that common ground will be found if you change your frame of mind.