Hong Sangsoo plays nobody’s game but his own. He became the darling of South Korean critics after the release of his debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996), with its four interlocking narratives (each by a different writer) and surreal flourishes. So of course Hong’s sophomore effort (1998’s The Power of Kangwon Province) pared the story down to just two halves—this time written by Hong alone, his practice ever since—and dropped its predecessor’s occasional forays into expressionism. He also stopped moving the camera, hastening his induction into that loosely-defined school of “Asian minimalism.”
But there was no sustained turn to asceticism. As Hong moved up the festival ladder and won a small but passionate global following, he started to employ voice-overs and more non-diegetic music; he also started moving the camera again, though without ever budging it from its immovable tripod. Most importantly, he began incorporating more humor—sometimes gentle, sometimes approaching a kind of arthouse cringe comedy. He came closest to the mainstream with Woman on the Beach (2006), which had a relatively lavish budget of 1.7 billion won (close to $2 million at the time) and a semi-wide release in Korea, where it was marketed—not wrongly, but still questionably—as a romantic comedy. Its underwhelming box-office performance seems to have spurred Hong’s transition to a more artisanal mode of filmmaking. He’s worked independently ever since, shooting with his own camera on budgets of less than $100k.
Remarkably, Hong’s work shows no outward signs of the change, barring the switch from celluloid to HD. He can induce some of the biggest stars in Korea (and elsewhere) to work with him for free, his laid-back style requires no cranes and dollies, and the usual locations in a Hong film—sidewalks, parks, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and cafés, the odd apartment or love hotel—are in plentiful supply, with no need to construct sets. The scenes that play out in these locations are also pretty consistent from film to film: chance encounters with old acquaintances, arguments over real or perceived slights, and awkward attempts at romance, usually aided by generous helpings of soju.
For skeptics, this just shows a lack of ambition, and the charge is true enough if one equates “ambition” with successively higher budgets, or branching out into different genres and subject matter. From another point of view, Hong has practically unlimited ambition within his chosen niche—the genre best described as “the Hong Sangsoo film”—that manifests as fearless play with narrative structure. Hong attributes this in part to the influence of Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, a collection of aphorisms that convinced him a film can be anything, “rules” be damned. More idiosyncratically, he cites a notorious “non-narrative” film to explain his approach: “Andy Warhol showed scenes of the Empire State Building for eight hours, deriving new meaning from simple fragments. My films are similar to that. They present a new arrangement. I would say that with only a simple rearrangement, I pursue something new.”
“Simple rearrangement” might be a case of false modesty. Since the turn of the decade, Hong’s films have given us drinking buddies who take turns swapping memories of what turns out to be the same woman (Hahaha, 2010); a string of short films interspersed with the personal dramas of their ostensible creators (Oki’s Movie, 2010); three stories of French women named Anne, sharing the same cast and locations but otherwise distinct (In Another Country, 2012); and a woman reading letters from her Japanese admirer, their contents depicted out of sequence after she jumbles the pages (Hill of Freedom, 2014). Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong’s first U.S. release since the Isabelle Huppert-starring In Another Country, seems comparatively straightforward at first. Filmmaker Han Chunsu (Jung Jae-young), in the Seoul suburb of Suwon for a screening of his work, meets painter Yoon Heejung (Kim Min-hee, The Handmaiden). Chunsu goes to her workshop and offers a condescending appraisal of her work, then drinks with her at a sushi bar. Afterwards, Heejung invites Chunsu to a gathering at a friend’s café, which she leaves early after learning more about his personal life. Chunsu escorts her home and apparently departs for Seoul the next day, following a combative Q&A at a local museum.
This story, which takes up the first 55 minutes of the film, is pretty conventional by Hong’s standards—almost disarmingly so. Everything happens in strictly linear order, without flashbacks or the untelegraphed dream sequences so common in Hong’s recent work. Chunsu is present in all but one scene, in contrast to the frequently shifting POV characters of the otherwise straightforward Our Sunhi (2013). But there is the strange touch of the opening title card, which unexpectedly reads (in Hong’s own handwriting) “Right Then, Wrong Now.” Any lingering notion of a subtitling error is put to rest after the Q&A, when another card appears bearing the “correct” title. The remainder of the film begins as a scene-for-scene retread of the plot described above, but with variations in behavior, dialogue, and camera placement that lead to further changes as the story develops. So, then: not so conventional after all.
Right Now, Wrong Then‘s clearest antecedent is Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), Hong’s third feature and perhaps his most mysterious. Both movies are split neatly down the middle, though the earlier film’s two halves are more sharply distinguished, the first part centered on the man and the second on the woman. But already we find Hong restaging the same scenes with minor variations. In the first half of Virgin Stripped Bare, for example, a couple knocks a fork off the table while making out in a restaurant; in the second, they knock off a spoon. Unlike the repetitions of Right Now, Wrong Then, it’s possible to analyze some of these paired scenes as separate incidents on a single but non-linear timeline. Other such scenes, however, aren’t amenable to this interpretation, as on the two separate occasions when a woman finds and returns a pair of lost gloves.
Plenty of explanations have been proffered for all this, mostly involving the subjectivity of memory, etc. etc. The tendency, then, is to treat Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors as a game—a puzzle film with a single “reality” to unearth from its contradictory fragments. The root of this may be the common perception of Hong as a “realistic” filmmaker; that’s understandable enough, given his no-frills style and quotidian subject matter. (Additionally, the strangeness of his dialogue, often noted in Korean commentary on his work, is largely lost on subtitle-dependent foreign audiences.)
But Hong has long disclaimed the label of “realism”—”People tell me I make films about reality. They’re wrong. I make films based on structures that I have thought up”—and his recent films further distance themselves from it without radically breaking with their predecessors. For 99% of its running time, Hill of Freedom seems to be a mere case of scrambled chronology, and it’s fairly easy to put the story back in its correct sequence. But then the final scene prompts a reconsideration of almost everything that came before—not in a Fight Club-ish “here’s what really happened” kind of way, but in a way that leaves nothing to “really” know.
In Right Now, Wrong Then, Hong presents two equally valid narratives with nothing outside of them, and no possibility (unlike Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) of attributing the differences to subjective points of view. This contrasts with the three stories of In Another Country, which were accompanied by the framing device of a bored film student brainstorming ideas while hiding out with her mother. Hong thus established an external reality that may be reflected in the stories, as when the actors playing the mother and daughter show up as different characters. With no similar connective tissue between them, the two sections of Right Now, Wrong Then are distinguished only in relation to each other, not to a putative “real world.”
On a narrative level, the distinctions are clear. Chunsu’s evaluation of the paintings is franker and more critical in the second half, which prompts a defensive reaction from a more assertive Heejung. Chunsu is also more forthcoming in the second scene at the sushi bar, volunteering information about his private life that Heejung only learns secondhand in the first half. The group gathering that follows is significantly different in part two: Heejung has already taken her leave when the scene begins, and we are instead treated to an odd incident involving Chunsu that apparently never occurred in the first story. The differences grow larger until the ending, which diverges completely; by and large, though, both sections proceed in the same overall sequence, which is quite distinct from more traditional what-if stories in the mold of Kieślowski’s Blind Chance.
The result is something like a spot-the-difference game, but focused on behavior and attitudes. This isn’t to say that visuals play no role, however, and in fact they provide some useful cues. Compared to his narrative structures, Hong’s formal sensibilities aren’t particularly audacious, and have gone largely unchanged over the last decade or so: a preference for long takes, filmed in mid or long shot on a tripod, with movement limited to pans, tilts, and zooms—the latter his strangest formal tic, used in a way that sometimes seems clumsy or unmotivated. All of these characteristics are present in the opening shot of Right Now, Wrong Then, which finds Chunsu standing outside the Haeng Palace complex and watching a woman go in. The shot begins on the woman, then zooms out to reveal Chunsu standing in the foreground. Part two opens with the same event, but this time the entire scene is visible from the start, Chunsu included. He’s still watching the woman, but without the zoom, the incident feels considerably less voyeuristic.
Something similar occurs with the next scene. Because he’s a man in a Hong Sangsoo film, Chunsu is shown looking at another woman (Go Ah-sung, of The Host and Snowpiercer), this time from the window of his hostel room. In the first version of the scene, we get a shot from Chunsu’s POV:
But the second version has a strange twist. Instead of reprising the shot from Chunsu’s perspective, we get a shot of Chunsu from outside—possibly from the woman’s POV, though she is never seen looking in his direction:
The second half also drops the voice-over in which Chunsu describes the woman in somewhat lecherous terms. The events remain the same, but by diminishing the audience’s identification with Chunsu’s point of view, the second version gives a more benign cast to his actions.
The most striking example of this dynamic comes when Chunsu visits Heejung’s workshop. In the first version, this scene begins with a lengthy shot of Heejung preparing to paint. She is at first only seen from behind, and though Chunsu is there conversing with her, he is kept entirely out of frame. Strictly speaking, this not a POV shot—when Heejung looks at Chunsu, she faces the camera’s left, not the camera itself—but the effect is similar. There is no equivalent of this shot in the second half, and we might conclude that Chunsu #2’s blunter take on Heejung’s work is the product of a less objectifying point of view that treats her work more seriously (though still condescendingly). In part one, however, there is the unsavory sense of a woman being scrutinized under Chunsu’s relentless gaze.
Chunsu’s gaze is more directly featured in the two sushi bar sequences. Both are dominated by long takes with Heejung and Chunsu, clearly worse for the wear after a few servings of hard stuff. Such scenes (and the awkwardness that goes with them, likely enhanced by Hong’s preference that his actors actually get drunk on camera) are Hong’s stock in trade, but there are some standout qualities here. For one, the camera never moves an inch, a rarity in a latter-day Hong film—particularly with shots of this length, which may well be the longest takes he has ever attempted: nearly nine minutes in the scene’s first iteration, and more than twelve in the second. Hong also blocks the actors along the Z-axis instead of his usual staging for such two-person drinking sessions, which places them directly opposite each other on the left and right sides of the frame (as seen in an earlier café sequence). Unlike many of the film’s other pairings, the two shots look basically the same in both halves, though there are minor differences that might just be down to Hong’s practice of shooting in sequence (even when it means returning to a location days or weeks later).
In both instances, Chunsu is placed in the background, facing Heejung and the general direction of the camera. In the first version, he comes off as slightly aggressive, leaning towards Heejung (and therefore the viewer) as though perusing a specimen; it doesn’t help that he occasionally displays something like a weird leer. In the second version, Chunsu—already chastened by Heejung after giving an unfavorable opinion of her work—is less forward, leaning back in his chair and giving Heejung her space.
But Chunsu’s body language isn’t the only thing that changes. Despite his more outwardly timid demeanor, Chunsu is also more candid in the second version, revealing an inconvenient truth he withholds in the first go-around. In that earlier scene, Chunsu claims he wants to be open with Heejung, but her beauty makes him “uncomfortable”; indeed, many of his lines in the first version are just different ways of telling Heejung how “pretty” she is. Thus Chunsu Mark I is a more typical example of Hongian Man: a calculating lothario (or would-be lothario—we’re left unsure if Chunsu has earned his public reputation as a ladies’ man) who persists in viewing women through the lens of an ideal.
In Hong’s work, this ideal often expresses itself as an obsession with innocence and purity: the boyfriend in Woman Is the Future of Man (2004) who tells his partner that their lovemaking will “cleanse” her following a sexual assault; the suicidal lovers in Tale of Cinema (2005) who, at the man’s suggestion, decide not to sleep together so that they can die “clean”; the professor in Our Sunhi whose reference letter for a female student refers to her “ideally innocent side,” a perception echoed by her other suitors. (It should go without saying that this is also a major theme in Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors.)
The first Chunsu continues in this vein, praising Heejung’s painting for its “innocent” qualities. But it’s fair to wonder whether Chunsu’s analysis is really an effort to align Heejung’s work with his own perspective. This is particularly true after one of Heejung’s acquaintances points out that Chunsu has described his own movies in the same terms. Of course, the ungenerous interpretation is that Chunsu is just using some off-the-shelf words to win Heejung’s affections, and Chunsu’s reaction upon being called out points strongly to this possibility. In this sense, Chunsu’s actions are reminiscent of the scene in The Day He Arrives (2011) where a man claims he can impress a woman by simply referring to her personality as a union of opposites—a verbal sleight of hand that is then repeatedly employed, with mixed success.
But if we’re inclined to believe that Chunsu isn’t being disingenuous, his self-plagiarism could be the other side of the idealism that afflicts so many Hong protagonists: a left-brained outlook that seeks to ground their fancies in a Procrustean bed of reason and preconceptions. (What is an ideal, after all, but just another preconception?) The side effect of this drive for rationality is an inability to handle emotional roadblocks thrown up along the way. If Chunsu is attracted to an artist, it makes a certain logical sense that he would feel an affinity for her work; unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have considered that “Your art is just like mine” might be taken as something besides a compliment. The Chunsu of part one—so eager at first to explain his work and the work of others—clams up while drinking with Heejung and runs up against the limits of his outlook, finally taking it out on the Q&A moderator who asks him to define “film.” But the Chunsu of part two hits his roadblock earlier, when Heejung rejects his critiques of her work (and his presumption in making them). The duly humbled Chunsu puts up a less defensive front and bares his soul more freely in the sushi bar—though a more overt example of irrationality unleashed comes during the bizarre reprise of the group drinking session.
This struggle between emotion and intellect is lived by many of Hong’s protagonists, who are best described as intellectuals—or, less charitably, pseudo-intellectuals. Even Hong’s fans are bemused by their sameness: with almost no exceptions, his male leads are film directors and/or film professors, both of which happen to be Hong’s jobs (he’s on the full-time faculty at Seoul’s Konkuk University). Many have overseas educations (Hong earned his degrees in Oakland and Chicago), and while we rarely see much if anything from their films, we learn enough to know they’re strictly arthouse. Hong doesn’t emphasize the autobiographical component of his work, but he doesn’t deny it either, and his much-publicized relationship with Kim Min-hee makes it especially tempting to apply this reading to Right Now, Wrong Then. All gossip aside, Hong (in an outstanding monograph from the Korean Film Council) readily describes himself as a recovering idealist:
I think I went through puberty clinging onto the ideals such as absolute truth, perfect world, absolute purity, etc. Everything that I encountered in life was automatically compared against an ideal value. I failed to comprehend things in life that couldn’t be incorporated into that ideal system. So, my life became fraught with schizophrenia asking why reality cannot easily converge with these beautiful ideals … I want to say that all these pains are actually unnecessary. It’s the ideals that are the essence of the problem, not life itself.
The rational, coolly “intellectual” filmmaker is epitomized by the director in Tale of Cinema, who sees a movie, seduces its lead actress, alienates her, and draws no conclusions except “With thought I can sort everything out.” (This comes after the actress delivers the most cutting put-down a cinephile can receive: “I don’t think you really understood the film.”) He’s also everything that Hong isn’t. Hong is a talkative interview subject (nothing Warholian there) but frequently attributes decisions to chance or intuition, and his seat-of-the-pants methods—embarking on films without even a treatment, writing scenes on the day of shooting—privilege impulse above calculation.
This no doubt contributes to the lacunae that make Hong’s films so enigmatic: the contradictions with no apparent purpose (Chunsu’s voice-over describes visiting a coffeeshop after the opening scene at the palace, but he’s shown in his hostel instead), the elision of seemingly important details (the provenance of the ring that shows up in the second half), and so on. For Hong, no fragment is less worthy of his attention than any other—a liberated approach that also confounds analysis by offering unlimited points of entry. To get personal for a minute, I write this well aware that I’ve barely discussed Heejung, which is down to my own biases and not Kim Min-hee’s brilliantly modulated performance. (There’s certainly no shortage of avenues to pursue here, like whether Heejung #2’s assertiveness is a reaction to Chunsu or something more intrinsic, or why both Heejungs duck out of the party early.) In continually challenging his ideas of what a film can be, Hong confronts the audience with their own limits and preconceptions. It’s a game with no winners or losers, but that benefits all its players.
Right Now, Wrong Then screened on August 7th, 2016 at the AFS Cinema. It can currently be streamed on Fandor, along with The Day He Arrives (2011) and In Another Country (2012). Three additional Hong Sangsoo films—Like You Know It All (2009), Hahaha (2010), and Oki’s Movie (2010)—are available for streaming on Amazon Prime.