Is there anything to be learned from watching the same scenario play out multiple times? Regular viewers of Hong Sang-soo's psychologically acute work have probably been asking themselves that for years, as many of the Korean filmmaker's movies spin variations on a single setup: a middle-aged art-film director dallies, often inconclusively, with a pretty young woman (or two).
So it goes in the writer-director's Ji-geum-eun-mat-go-geu-ddae-neun-teul-li-da (Right Now, Wrong Then) — and then it goes again. In the first half, titled "Wrong Then, Right Now," visiting filmmaker Ham Chunsu (Jung Jae-young) meets local painter Yoon Heejung (Kim Minhee) at a historic palace in Suwon, a small city near Seoul. The second time around, in a chapter that shares the movie's title, the same thing happens, but not exactly.
In fact, there are many differences, some of them merely playful but others profound. Hong spotlights the mechanics of filmmaking, and not simply with alternate renditions of the events. The two versions use different lighting and camera angles, and only one of them has voiceover narration. Even the weather changes, although both episodes transpire on the same day in the same place.
Since the protagonist is a filmmaker, the movie can be seen as his different drafts of the same script. When Han and Yoon discuss her halfway-painted canvas, is it better to show it, or not? The movie tries both.
What occurs each time is that Ham spots Yoon, admires her beauty, and gets her attention by noting he's a famous director. (But has she seen his movies? The answer to that arrives two different ways.) Ham invites Yoon to a coffeeshop, followed by a visit to her studio. Later they eat at a sushi bar, where they get drunk. Then Yoon takes Ham to a small party where two older women extol his films. The night ends when Ham walks Yoon to the home she shares with her mother. In an epilogue set the next day, Ham appears at a screening of one of his movies, the event that brought him to Suwon.
The disparities between the two tellings include entire scenes that occur just once. But the fundamental shift is in Ham's demeanor. One time, he's gentle and diplomatic; the next, he's brash and candid. The humor of the characterization is broader in the second version, and yet Ham's appeal is stronger, too.
Which approach is more likely to intrigue a young woman? And is either genuine, or are they just alternate, and equally calculating, seduction techniques? The viewer, and Yoon, may simply be experiencing two equally false personae.
Although he does move the camera, sometimes distractingly, Hong's style is detached. Several key scenes are lengthy and uncut conversations between Han and Yoon. This showcase of naturalistic acting is doubled, since Jung and Kim must stay in character in two slightly different modes.
Of today's notable Korean directors, Hong is the least inclined toward gore and the most attuned to French cinema. He transplanted his formula to Paris for Bam gua na (Night and Day), and has worked with Isabelle Huppert. Given the importance of cigarettes in this movie, Right Now, Wrong Then may well have been inspired by Alain Resnais' 1993 Smoking/No Smoking, in which the story diverges after a character lights, or fails to light, a butt.
Yet Hong's film is not one of the many recent art-film parables that feigns to submit its characters to the whims of fate. Should the relationship between either version of Han and Yoon ultimately disappoint, the fault is not in their stars.