Every time I feel like I’m getting a handle on world cinema I am chagrined to discover how much I have yet to learn. This was a recommendation by our cinephile friend. It’s made by Hong Sang-soo, an independent South Korean filmmaker who has been around for a while but this is the first time I’ve seen his work.
Director Ham Cheong-soo arrives in the city of Suwon to host a screening of his film and attend a question-and-answer session. Having arrived a day early, he seems to have nothing much to do and spends his time walking and visiting the local sights. He happens to see a girl and is struck by her beauty. When he meets her at a temple, he strikes up a conversation. Her name is Yoon Hee-jung and she is trying to be a painter. Though she has never watched his films, she has heard of him as a director. They go to her studio so that he can see her paintings and he praises them effusively. They have dinner together where he again compliments her on her beauty. During a small gathering with some of her friends however he is forced to admit that he is married, causing Hee-jung to be disappointed. Their relationship ends acrimoniously. But then the day resets itself with the director this time being a more bluntly honest person.
Right Now, Wrong Then made a poor first impression on me due to its cut-rate production values. It’s so basic in fact that it verges on student quality photography: natural lighting that looks washed out, simple panning and zooming being the only camera movement, very little editing and in situ location shots with no frills at all. In one cafe scene for example Ham and Yoon sit at a table by the window which is nice enough, except that a parked car completely blocks the view outside. It’s pretty clear that this is an extremely low budget production with the director being content to film in whatever environment he can find. At the same time the complete lack of any form of distraction serves to highlight just how good the quality of the acting is. Jung Jae-young in particular is astonishingly good as Ham. I love how he is visibly drunk even while he is saying that alcohol doesn’t affect him at all. All of the dialogue and interactions feel completely spontaneous and natural, complete with rambling lines, interlocutors who don’t quite know where a conversation is going on and so on. This is a film that leans on acting alone and it is impressive how this is enough to completely capture the audience’s attention.
I am however leery of the film’s themes and what sort of message it is trying to convey. My wife notes that one way of looking at it is that it’s a reflection of the myriad possibilities of life and how Ham taking a more honest approach changes the outcome. But as there are only two iterations it doesn’t go quite deep enough. I am also genuinely confused about whether or not the interactions are meant to be seen as romantic. I suspect that there is a cultural barrier in place here and it really is meant to be romantic to South Koreans. To me, even when he is being honest, Ham comes across as being an obsessive creep who is interested in Hee only because he is entranced by her beauty. While I can see being Hee being intrigued by his cachet as an independent director of some renown, his behavior marks him out as being such a weirdo that I don’t understand what the director is going for. At the same time, while the acting is fantastic and the dialogue feels very natural, I don’t find the content of their conversation to be very insightful or else I’d more readily see this as a Korean analogue of the Before Sunrise series.
I think Right Now, Wrong Then is amazing for its acting and serves as another great showcase for how much can be achieved with so little. That said, I don’t think its production values need to be quite so basic as this and I really hoped that it had stronger themes or more interesting conversation.