‘Right Now, Wrong Then’
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Stars: Jung Jae-young, Kim Min-hee
5 (out of 5) Globes
The South Korean director Hong Sang-soo likes to repeat himself — an observation just about every review of his films likes to repeat. The lengths are all over the place, but the focus is always the same: All are unusually perceptive about the psychology of sex-crazed men who play off like they’re nice guys. The particulars vary. By our number crunching, over the last 20 years he’s made eight films about lovelorn and/or horny male filmmakers, three about general artists and one about an actor. Two boast a female protagonist. Six of them feature multiple stories and four of those repeat the same tale but with playful differences. Pretty much all of them (and maybe all of them, full-stop) feature epic soju binges.
“Right Now, Wrong Then,” Hong’s 17th feature checks four of these boxes: Like “The Day He Arrives” and “Like You Know It All,” it finds a director — Jung Jae-young’s Ham, sometimes regally referred to as “Director Ham” — known for his Hong Sang-soo-y films arriving in a small town for a film festival or screening of his work. There are multiple stories, but like “The Day He Arrives” but not “Like You Know It All,” his attempted dalliances with a woman — young aspiring artist Yoon (Kim Min-hee) — the tales play out twice. The first time Ham is the faux-meekly predatory and Yoon is submissive, until she realizes she’s been had. The second time Yoon is more on guard and Ham is more easily defeated. There will be soju.
What makes “Right Now, Wrong Then” different — or any Hong different — from the others isn’t easily surmised. Like the back stretch of Yasujiro Ozu’s career, the repetition is key, as though both were makers of wooden furniture trying to perfect their craft. The eagle-eyed fanboy can suss out the subtle differences, and might even notice his latest is one of his very best films, hanging up there with “Turning Gate,” “Night and Day” and “Like You Know It All.” For one thing, it’s even more precise than usual. Hong’s style involves long takes that don’t show off, a la Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, but plop the camera down in one spot and let conversations run on indefinitely. The occasional zoom comes in handy, in this case boxing Ham and Yoon into a tighter, more claustrophobic frame as he nears his prey.
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For another, it plays like a self-critique of a filmmaker whose films are all already self-critiques. Hong knows he’s made this film before in some variation, and he knows many of them have involved women being hit on by casually manipulative men. This time he lets the woman win. Yoon is mousy and flattered that a well-known filmmaker is macking on her, even if she’s never seen his work. Even before the film hits repeat and gives her the upper hand, she becomes wise to his ways, if not so quick to act on what she’s picked up.
As ever, there’s no rational reason to explain why time has reversed and started up again. They could be alternate universes, a la the vast interdimensional world of “Rick and Morty.” Or it could be divine intervention. Each section winds down with a call to prayer, and what follows could be a kind of limited reincarnation, with Yoon and Ham aware they’re destined to not connect and change the trajectory of their meeting. But looking for earthbound logic is to see the forest for the trees. The real draw is watching Hong, once again, as he always does, nail the way a specific type of man plays with the mind of a certain type of woman, one forever destined to (eventually) throw his advances in his face. To put it vaguely, this one’s simply more astute, more playfully constructed and more devastating than usual.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge