The summer film season is in full swing, and with that means your local theater/megaplex is likely filled to the brim with studio pictures varying in size but less so in quality or inventiveness. However, one look deep into the realm of independent or art house theaters this weekend may introduce you to both one of the great films of this year as well as one of world cinemas great modern auteurs.
From beloved filmmaker Hong Sang-soo comes Right Now, Wrong Then, a story of love not quite like anything seen previously. Beginning simply enough, the film introduces the viewer to a filmmaker (played by Jung Jae-young), who just so happens to be in town one day in advance of a pending screening/lecture at a local school. Commencing on the proverbial steps of a centuries old palace, we meet our protagonist as he sparks a conversation with a beautiful but unassuming artist who has little to no knowledge of his work much less who he actually even is.
However, things seem to be going smoothly as they go from small talk to him going to her workshop and ultimately finding the pair getting lost in conversations over sushi and (a Hong staple) soju. Culminating in a breathtaking sequence set at a small gathering of friends, the film hits a conclusion, only to double back on itself, once again introducing us to the same artist, at the same temple, running into the same artist. As this series of events progress, small details are altered, making the back half of this picture even more stimulating both intellectually and emotionally.
Superficially, the film sounds like a run of the mill romantic comedy, the type of boy-meets-then-loses-then-wins-back-girl picture that sounds about as interesting as lobotomy. However, the beauty in Right Now, Wrong Then is in both Hong’s direction and his ability to make seemingly minute details or gestures carry within their DNA such enormous weight. Hong is a director who has garnered both critical accolades as well as a cult-like following with acolytes comparing his most often to filmmakers like Woody Allen, the type of minor key auteur who both allows his performances and screenplays to breath while also subverting expectations in about every way. Crafting a film that is so skillfully split into two as to eventually lead the viewer to question his or her own memory of the previous scenario, Hong’s latest is a master class in structure, with the filmmaker growing into his own with his use of long takes and framing. Constantly telling the viewer everything they need to know in simple things like the blocking of a scene or the way characters are framed within a given shot, Hong’s camera is shockingly subdued but every move is calculated, assured and entirely full of emotional impact. It also helps that Park Hong-yeol’s photography is crisp and inviting, with gorgeous interiors being enveloped in warm light, matching up perfectly with Hong’s unassuming script and the copious amounts of booze being thrust down the gullets of our two main characters.
While neither narrative reaches a real dramatic high, that’s in many ways the point. Clearly a film about the impact of minute details on daily life, particularly the relationships one carries throughout it, this is both a perfect encapsulation of Hong’s type of boozy storytelling and also a decidedly timid step in a new direction. The script is at times utterly hilarious (the role of the filmmaker here is a crystal clear proxy for Hong and his views on critics is laugh-inducing for any film goer or self deprecating film critic alike) and also deeply moving, particularly in the climax of the film’s first half, which itself is one of the year’s very best sequences. The pair of lead performances here are also absolutely worthy of note, particularly Kim Min-hee as Hee-jung. Yes, she’s a gorgeous woman, but what’s more so is that she carries seemingly from the very beginning a quiet charisma that is utterly magnetic. Again, this is a picture of glances and revelations, of tones and textures, and while many may find the performance to be a touch too quiet, the chemistry between she and Jae-young is palpable. Jae-young is also quite great here, with the film only growing in energy and vitality as the actor begins to imbibe.
A quiet evolution for director Hong Sangsoo, Right Now, Wrong Then is easily the year’s best romantic comedy, and as we near the year’s halfway point it’s hard to find too many pictures that are more imminently watchable and utterly engrossing.