At a film festival, something new should be around the corner, so say the program notes, the lineup conversations, the unfamiliar titles clustered around the few you will be able to see, suggesting alternate trips through the schedule. But just as valid are the filmmakers who, inhabiting worlds limited like a piano’s keys are limited, decide to work within a world that, on the outside, or in a logline, looks repetitive, as old as the year they made their first film. Going to the new Hong Sang-soo movie? Right, that means to the bar, to the cafe, to the tourist plaza, to the slow hike, the outdoor smoke, to wherever people talk and drink and embarrass themselves and talk and drink and repeat themselves.
But Hong has a reason for sticking with a similar working method for each film: though the starting point of women and men and meeting spaces is mundane, by the time a ten-minute scene passes, captured in an unbroken take, full of the perilous verbal slip-ups and pauses, memory recalls and deepening conversation layers that upend everything one knows about another person, there is the sense that, as in a wormhole, we have travelled further than should be possible. If not for his disliking the theatre program at Chang-Ang University, Hong could have ended up in the world of drama, and there is an openness in his films to letting actors find the scene through shifts in body language, the way they (fail to) listen to each other, small expressions that suggest the years of a character in a few seconds. Hong scales his movies to his actors, to the way people spend their time when not at work, and is completely uninterested in parlaying any success into grandiose productions — the intricacies of a conversation, and the small betrayals and alliances of confidence within that world, are enough.
Of late, the way to tell Hong’s movies apart are their structural games: what does it do to this set-up if part of it is a memory, or a dream, or possibly never happened, or arrives with deja vu, or, in the case of Right Now, Wrong Then, is presented as two alternate possibilities. Jung Jae-young plays a director in town for a screening, and Kim Min-hee plays a painter. They meet, it’s cold, they go inside for tea, they talk, they travel throughout Suwon. And after they part ways, the film starts again, no different than how, after leaving a party or a date, people replay moments, asking themselves how things might have happened if only they’d said something at a different time. Seeing the scenario replay immediately after means, in the few places where the dialogue is no different, the effect is like watching a back-to-back rehearsal, being forced to listen to someone’s story when you already heard them tell it to somebody else. Still, Right Now, Wrong Then is generous with its moments of ebb-and-flow comedy and pathos: with his emphasis on timing, chance meetings, and his ability to make movies about romance that are not in the Romantic mode, Hong may have made his own version of Linklater’s Before Sunrise.
If so, in the end we are not left with a promise that people may reunite, in the same way, in the same place, but the assurance that they won’t, and that this is, at least for Hong, the best place for a story to start.