An acclaimed filmmaker is the object of diffident female attention from multiple sources, leading to an innocuous array of misunderstandings and romantic missteps. If you think that sounds very much like a Hong Sang-soo film, you’d be right: “Right Now, Wrong Then,” the tireless South Korean auteur’s 17th feature, is so quintessentially Hong as to border on larkish self-parody. What distinguishes it from similarly toned work within his filmography, as with last year’s trifle “Hill of Freedom,” is a wily structural gimmick, as the pic’s two leisurely halves tell much the same nearly-love story with subtly different accents, reactions and bittersweet outcomes. The amiably ambling result is unlikely to shift the divide between Hong’s enchanted admirers and impatient skeptics — meaning “Right Now’s” theme of self-repetition should extend to a familiar travel itinerary, with fest slots in Toronto and New York following its Locarno premiere.
If the regularity and low-key stylistic consistency of Hong’s work make him, as some acolytes have argued, a spiritual descendant of Woody Allen, “Right Now, Wrong Then” stands as a breezy formal experiment in the vein of “Melinda and Melinda” — one that exploits the essential familiarity of its components to examine and alternate finer storytelling mechanics. Both films trace the divergent paths a single anecdote can take via minor variations in emotional tenor, though unlike Allen’s tragicomic coin-flip exercise, “Right Now” doesn’t divide its parallel narratives along genre lines. Nor does Hong intercut them, instead elegantly bisecting the film into separate, self-contained scenarios — the second unfolding in such a way that viewers’ short-term memory of the first is consistently challenged.
As with a number of Hong’s onscreen alter egos, he betrays a winking degree of narcissism through his protagonist: Played by gangly “Our Sunhi” star Jung Jae-young, he’s a sensitive auteur of unimpeachable artistic integrity whose films draw fluttering devotion at every turn, usually from winsome female intellectuals. (“You’re the most important director to me,” one festival volunteer earnestly tells him at the outset. “Your films helped me when I was very lonely.”) Unlike, say, “Stardust Memories”-era Allen, Hong exhibits little resentment of such fawning — reserving his animosity instead for supposed blowhard critics at post-film Q&As. He does, however, let us know that he’s fully in on the joke by christening the auteur Han Chun-su; whether the character reflects him or not, he could hardly encourage the association more blatantly.
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Both back-to-back narratives play out over a 24-hour period in Suwon, where Chun-su has traveled from Seoul for a modest festival screening of his latest film. Given a day to sightsee following an organizational error, he visits the ancient Hwaseong Haeng-gung palace, where he meets sweet, shy painter Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee) — who recognizes his name, but admits to never having seen his films. Recognition, it would seem, is enough, and the two spontaneously spend the day together, trading life stories and creative philosophies over coffee and sushi before heading together to a party held by Hee-jung’s poet friend Young-sil (Seo Young-hwa). Yet before sunrise — and, indeed, before any “Before Sunrise” comparisons can settle — their connection is severed by a harsh confession, blackening Chun-su’s mood ahead of a disastrous interview the next day.
Back to the start, then, with a neatly reversed title card (“Right Then, Wrong Now”) ushering in a second chance for the gauche director to get things right — not that he’s conscious, it should be stressed, of this “Groundhog Day”-style rewind. In this alternate dimension, he picks up Hee-jung in much the same way, though their ensuing conversation steers the nascent relationship very differently, and not always with the most obvious consequences. Hong repeatedly demonstrates out the unexpected benefits of the social faux pas: Chun-su’s uncushioned criticism of Hee-jung’s paintings in the second half ultimately yields a more positive response than his coddling praise in the first, while one drunken indiscretion can, in a fresh context, be far more endearing (not to mention farcically funny) than another.
It may be said that neither scenario adds up to an awful lot, both playing out with an everyday sense of anticlimax: Life continues, feelings fade, and Hong will likely make another comparable miniature in a year’s time. Working with his usual crew, Hong once more pursues an aesthetic of artless naturalism, though Park Hong-yeol’s bright digital lensing is more demurely poised than on some of the helmer’s scrappier recent features, with fewer of the crude zooms and pans that have become an enervating directorial signature.
At its best, however, “Right Now, Wrong Then” is a film of minute observations rather than grand revelations, less concerned with butterfly-effect consequentiality than the variable human foibles that can turn a bad day into a good one. (Or vice versa, given that there’s nothing in the film to suggest which, if either, of its non-identical twin tales is “real.”) At over two hours, its fine-grained study is perhaps a tad overstretched: Only once the architecture of Hong’s script is revealed will viewers know what to look (or listen) for in its lulls.