Full disclaimer: I am virtually unfamiliar with South Korean films. Like many, I’ve only seen Oldboy and loved its gratuitous violence and over-the-top plot, but my knowledge of this scene stops there. I’ve gathered the impression that romance is very popular in South Korea. I base this off seeing dozens of students watching SK dramas and movies on tiny laptops in cramped hallways throughout my university. Whenever I would glance over at their screens, I would see young adults chatting, holding hands and doing other typically date-oriented actions. So when I went into Right Now, Wrong Then, the latest film by director Hong Sang-soo, I had a feeling that I was dealing with a romance when the lead character began to excessively comment on an attractive woman who just happens to be standing outside his building. I’m sure some of those romantic television shows and films have merit and are generally entertaining, but unfortunately, Right Now, Wrong Then isn’t among them.
Sang-soo’s movie has a simple enough premise: an acclaimed arthouse film director is invited to a screening of his film in a small university town. Unfortunately, he arrives a day early, meaning he has to find some way to kill time. Fortunately for him, he almost immediately ogles a cutie pie outside his window and conveniently bumps into her later in the day. After impressing her with his charm (i.e; asking her what she’s drinking repeatedly and then asking her to join him for “warm coffee” several times before she finally accepts), they go out on a date and the viewer proceeds to follow their day.
I don’t want to say more without spoiling much, but that’s part of the movie’s problem: there’s not much to spoil. The majority of Right Now, Wrong Then consists of long, static shots of its two characters having some of the fluffiest, mock-genuine chit chat that I’ve ever seen in a movie. Ramping up the awkward factor is the director’s liberal usage of zoom-ins and zoom-outs; sometimes the camera zooms in on one of the character’s faces and when the viewer expects a cut, the camera… merely zooms out again. Sang-soo even does this when a character isn’t the focal point of a conversation, adding some unintended comedy to certain scenes.
Now I realize that I’m watching a subtitled foreign film and that similarly dorky conversations are a common trope in endless movies. Yet, the dialogue has such little substance that I just couldn’t care less about either character or how their “date” went. Sang-soo’s script could’ve benefited from the odd humourous quip or, well, anything to drive the plot and help me overlook the dullness. Needless to say, I found myself daydreaming more than once throughout the excessive two hour run time.
However, the movie’s biggest flaw is its gimmick: after the first hour ends and the characters’ night concludes, Right Now, Wrong Then starts… again. The second hour merely consists of a retold version of the first hour, only now with the protagonist acting slightly differently, resulting in the action unfolding in altered ways. It’s a gimmick you’ve seen before in movies like Sliding Doors, Run Lola Run or Blind Chance, only those films contained sharp, driving stories that not only justified the use of this narrative device, but gripped the viewer into wondering how each new version of the film’s narrative would be different from the last. Instead, the first half of Sang-soo’s movie is such a bore that one wonders why any screenwriter would revisit it.
Yet admittedly, while the second half still possesses many of the flaws displayed in the first version, it is somewhat more entertaining to watch, to the point where I wish Sang-soo would’ve abandoned his pointless gimmick and instead remade the entire film as an expanded version of this second narrative. As it stands, the movie’s mere existence just baffles me. What is Sang-soo trying to say by making Right Now, Wrong Then in this way? Is he trying to portray the frustration of never knowing if we’re with the right person? If so, how exactly did he plan to do that by showing the same narrative twice with relatively minor differences? One regular story could’ve hammered out this point. So as it stands, Right Now, Wrong Then is a fundamentally flawed film that could’ve resembled something profound had its director seriously re-examined his methods.
Still, I can’t fault the film too hard for its low-key, dialogue-heavy scenes. For all I know, Right Now, Wrong Then‘s tropes are actually commonplace in South Korean cinema, meaning its intended audience would not only expect, but also laud them. I’ll also add that I do enjoy the cinematography and quiet city atmosphere, which is enhanced by a solidly minimal soundtrack throughout. Additionally, I’ve seen Sang-soo called a “genius” online, and the movie has already won dozens of awards at film festivals. So it’s always possible that my western ways just aren’t allowing me to “get it”. Just know that I’ll watch Oldboy a dozen more times before revisiting this flick.