Right Now, Wrong Then ★★★★

[8]

[This is an excerpt from a longer review that I wrote for Cineaste.]

Hong’s preferred modus operandi is the slow burn, with a particular emphasis on seemingly predictable social scenarios (sexual coupling, casual drinking) gradually going off the rails, to the gut-cramping embarrassment of the maladroit protagonist. Right Now is no exception, except in the fact that the key scenes of social faux pas are handled with a particular deftness. [...]

The first part is labeled “Wrong Now, Right Then” and the second “Right Now, Wrong Then.” In some sense, these subtitles promise not only parallelism but also realignment. That is, the first set of events is presented incorrectly, the second accurately. And, in both cases, our viewing of the one iteration gestures toward the other: a proleptic one the first time, an anterior one the second time. What’s more, the first segment begins with Chunsu walking around, whereas the second shows an exterior view of Chunsu in his hotel window, seen by someone (possibly Heejung) looking up at him from the sidewalk. So it is possible to view the two halves of Hong’s film not just as refractions of a set of events, but as partial corrections: first Chunsu’s blinkered perspective, then Heejung’s somewhat more objective viewpoint.

But this is misdirection. Although the second iteration does cast Heejung as a bit less pliable, more standoffish, and skeptical at first, much of the action is pretty much the same. It is with small gestures that Hong articulates the differences. Sometimes the camera is positioned slightly differently, to one side or the other. More frequently, Hong and cinematographer Park Hongyeol use zooms and reframing at different moments, drawing our focus toward specific elements of performance and discourse. In the coffee house scenes, for example, Hong frames his two shot wide and then, as the conversation shifts in intensity, the image zooms in slightly but noticeably, tightening around the couple and excising the immediate environment.

Or, at different points during these same scenes, Hong will suddenly zoom in on one or the other actor. In the “Wrong Now” section, we get a seemingly unmotivated close-up of Chunsu, which then pulls back to the two shot. But these moments are deployed with the kind of subtle precision with which a writer would use paragraph breaks or semicolons. They signal otherwise imperceptible seismic disturbances in the surface of interpersonal relations, and these vibrations are not the same across the two halves of the film.

As far as divergences in the actual trajectory of the two plotlines, this is a trickier matter. Hong makes it perfectly clear when it happens, but the question is why. There is a rather obvious reading of the “turn.” In both sequences, Heejung brings Chunsu up to her atelier to see her newest painting. The first time, the camera is positioned on the left side shooting right, and we see Heejung’s canvas, a nonobjective painting of broken curves in the idiom of Kazimir Malevich or František Kupka. When she asks Chunsu’s opinion, he offers meaningless bromides about how “following [her] path takes courage.” (Later, when they meet up with Heejung’s friends, one of them corners Chunsu, remarking that these empty comments were taken verbatim from a recent interview he gave.) The second time, however, the camera is on the right side, hiding the canvas from view. When asked his opinion, Chunsu tells Heejung that her work is passive-aggressive and timid, and that she needs to find her own voice. In the moment, she is furious, but later says she appreciated his honesty. (Incidentally, in the first sequence, Heejung is using a palette with orange paint, with green in the second.)

It is possible to see “Wrong Now” as having a rather calamitous ending—everything comes to a head at the party with Heejung’s friends—and “Right Now” as having a rather sweet, hopeless-romantic one. And, given the centrality of the atelier scene, it is indeed possible to lavish the entire film with a rather pat moral: Chunsu’s happiness is directly proportional to his honesty. But once again, this apparent legibility seems to be a red herring. For one thing, this implies that we should take Hong’s section headings at face value. Perhaps most importantly, this interpretation gives short shrift to the active work that Right Now’s structure actually performs, to say nothing of the deeply self-critical, profeminist streak that has characterized this director’s work for over a decade. [...]