The title of Hong Sang-soo’s new film, Right Now, Wrong Then, can mean many different things depending on the intonation and emphasis given to the phrases it contains. “Right now” could mean “this very second,” and the following negation of this phrase could then suggest the importance of the present. Or the title could mean “this is right (morally, functionally, or ethically speaking) now, but it was wrong then.” Or if we consider the “now” to be a noun, the title would mean the present is “right,” but the past was “wrong.” The more the film’s title gets examined and picked apart, though, the more the essence of the actual words gets confused (or perhaps the words reveal themselves to be loosely defined and confusing). “Now” and “then” refer pretty much irreducibly to time, especially its passing, but “right” and “wrong” can’t be captured with such brevity.
Right Now, Wrong Then is primarily about what others perceive as right and wrong in terms of behavior and speech. The film’s protagonist is Chun-soo (Jung Jae-young), a filmmaker who arrives in the Korean town Suwon a day before he is supposed to speak and screen his latest film at a local festival. While sitting in a blessing hall on his downtime, he introduces himself to Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), a young woman who’s heard of him, but hasn’t seen any of his movies. The two get coffee and she talks about her routine as a painter — she claims she must paint everyday to express her feelings, otherwise she feels as though she’s failed herself. When Chun-soo speaks it is to deliver forced admiration and platitudes, such as when he says he envies her ability to stick to such a solid routine because he can’t relate to her lifestyle. He then goes to her studio and watches her paint while praising her work, admiring her ostensible sensitivity and willingness to start something without a projected end result. Hee-jung then invites him to a café to meet some of her friends, one of whom happens to be a major fan of Chun-soo’s films. When Hee-jung tells her friend what Chun-soo said about her painting, she reveals she heard him say the same thing verbatim in an interview. Additionally, she spills that he has a wife and kids in Seoul. Upon this revelation, Hee-jung loses interest and goes home alone. The story then starts over from the beginning with some major differences, most notably that Chun-soo is much more upfront about his life (and his opinion on her painting) than he was in the tale’s first incarnation. The result at the end is a much more pleasant parting with Hee-jung and a much more agreeable disposition for Chun-soo overall.
If one were to needlessly ground Right Now, Wrong Then’s narrative into a logical and realistic series of events, the argument could easily be made that the film’s second half amounts to a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Yet Hong’s purpose in presenting the story twice is surely not so straightforward. The double narrative, rather, promotes not only honesty but also spontaneity as means of building and sustaining relationships. Chun-soo and Hee-jung’s relationship begins after a random, chance encounter at an ancient palace and, in the second half, Chun-soo presumably makes a choice not to repeat the same thing he usually says and instead criticizes Hee-jung’s painting instead of emptily praising it. Yet the film also represents ritual heavily, such as Hee-jung’s comments about her painting over coffee or the shot of Hee-jung’s mother bowing to a large Buddha statue beside her house, which ends the first half. The film shows a divide between rituals that involve human emotion, Hee-jung painting everyday to express her feelings, and those which are empty, Chun-soo repeating the same statement in interviews regardless of what its applied to. One signifies a surplus of emotion which must be unloaded into art, and the other a lack of emotion or investment. Perhaps Hong’s film means to suggest that creating routines dependent on something as volatile as emotions is a way of combining necessary spontaneity with comforting ritual.
To bring back the title, which itself is doubled — the first half is given the name Right Then, Wrong Now and the second half Right Now, Wrong Then — the reversal from the first half to the second crystallizes Hong’s notion of honesty and spontaneity producing “wrong” moments (such as Hee-jung’s anger at Chun-soo’s criticism of her painting) that lead to a more comfortable and stable relationship later on. The first title expresses that the restraint of honesty at the beginning (producing unearned comfort) leads to a “wrong” result (the dissolution of the relationship. Discomfort and conflict are seemingly necessary preambles to a steady relationship.
Despite the film’s apparently slight — yet actually gently complex — and buoyant approach to its subject, Right Now, Wrong Then also can’t be divorced from the director’s real life. Throughout his career, Hong Sang-soo has made several films about male filmmakers courting younger women, and though he is always critical of how these men pursue their objects of desire, this time the surrounding circumstances are overwhelmingly resonant with the film itself. In the film Chun-soo is a married filmmaker who flirts with Hee-jung, and about a year ago, Hong left his wife and began an affair with the lead actress of this film, Kim Min-hee. Hong doesn’t seem too concerned with hiding the parallels between his life and this film, however, as the film shown at Chun-soo’s screening is Hong’s previous film, Hill of Freedom (2014). While the apparent self-reflection provided in Right Now, Wrong Then remains sensitive and thought-provoking, it is slightly discolored knowing the already morally dubious circumstances of the protagonist’s life are grounded in reality.