A man sees a woman outside a holy site. He knows he shouldn’t approach her. That part of his life is over now, yet circumstance brings them together anyway. She sits down across from him beneath a temple awning to drink a carton of banana milk, and he breaks his promise to himself. He is an artist, and he cannot help but engage in the chance game of life.
Cheon-so (Jae-yeong Jeong) meets Hee-jeong (Min-hee Kim) twice over the course of Sang-soo Hong’s 2015 film Right Now, Wrong Then, now streaming on Kanopy. In his seventeenth feature film, the director poses a beguilingly simple question: What is hidden on the surface of our lives? To explore the implications of this, he constructs a film with two distinct chapters that directly mirror one another, showing how one day plays out in two different ways. The film examines the role chance plays in our lives, and how it’s both totally mundane and achingly romantic.
In an autobiographical touch, Cheon-so is an art film director respected within the intelligentsia of South Korean society. He’s come to the town of Suwon to screen one of his latest works. Hee-jeong is a local who has given up all ambitions but one; to become a great painter. She spends her days looking for inspiration. On the other hand, Cheon-so spends his looking for excuses. In middle age, he’s begun to feel the walls of tedious, everyday reality close in around him; by courting Hee-jeong, he hopes to ignite a fresh source of passion for himself.
Their day-long conversation revolves around the meaning of making art, and the loneliness of those who commit themselves to the purpose of seeking that meaning. The film operates at a very low pitch, filled mostly with charged silences that hint at romance without ever fully taking that leap. Hong works in contemplative, quiet long takes, with carefully directed zooms and pans as the only visual signals of the growing bond between Cheon-so and Hee-jeong. As an audience, we are intentionally kept on the surface of things, with only the warm and humane performances left to guide us beyond. The two actors certainly rise to the occasion, as they dance around each other, probing boundaries of affection and honesty.
At first, this relational choreography is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy. Indeed, the strength of this film is grounded in the deeply collaborative partnership that Sang-soo Hong established with his lead performers. The writer/director creates his films on the fly, writing scenes in the early morning hours before filming begins. He develops personal friendships with his performers, often over drinks and cigarettes. In the case of this film, Hong and actress Min-hee Kim have even admitted to carrying out their own love affair on set (the aftermath of which infamously became the inspiration for their next collaboration in 2017’s On the Beach At Night Alone). This unique process lends a distinct feeling of cinéma vérité to the film.
However, halfway through, the story seemingly ends – and then begins again. From here on out, the naturalistic storytelling takes on a metaphysical conceit that brings to mind Abbas Kiarostami’s reality-bending exploration of truth in love, Certified Copy. While the first half of Right Now, Wrong Then is shot in gentle, pastel light, and the actors are animated and buoyant, the second half brings bleached sunlight and cold snow to the town of Suwon. Cheon-so and Hee-jeong’s meeting plays out again, with subtle differences in tone and content. A melancholy hovers over the characters, as if somewhere deep in their unconscious, they remember their previous encounter.
This mirrored half of the film plays out much less traditionally than the first, as the companions clash in a more honest fashion than earlier. However, Hong does not repeat this encounter to correct mistakes made by the characters in the first run, nor moralize by rewarding the audience or his protagonists with a conclusive reason for this opaque structural choice.
Instead, he shows the fickle nature of life and filmmaking. Small variations in behavior and choice reverberate in infinite directions, yet we will only ever be able to know what plays out before our eyes. Sang-soo Hong takes the medium of cinema, often used to hide or imagine reality, and lays it bare. In a similar way, the actors communicate something deeply felt without many words needed at all. If you’re inclined to the naturalistic and romantic, take a chance on this film. It does not strike so much as linger in the mind and, if nothing else, it tells the only truth it can.