The Day After (Hong Sangsoo, 2017)

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The Day After: Never Forget a Face

For most films and to most film viewers, the detail can appear so minimal: the opening credits. Nobody would confuse an opening credits of a Hong Sangsoo film with say, the dazzling, intricate opening credit works done by Saul Bass for films by Alfred Hitchcock. But in The Day After, Hong Sangsoo’s film that premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and which is now opening in Seattle on May 25th, the credits plays differently in the context of so many previous Hongs. Instead of bold colored backgrounds that the credit text fills as we’ve been conditioned to find from the prolific South Korean auteur, The Day After has no title cards and instead the credits play straight into the film. Minor and unnoticeable for most, but for Hong fans who have often only had the opportunity to catch his films at various festivals, the change caused a kind of jolting reaction. However, the opening credits are just the start of the feeling that with this film, Hong Sangsoo has shifted and is turning in a new direction.

The Day After is a fascinating film in its non-linear, cyclical structure and is one of Hong’s most formally confident works that should be striking to both fans and those previously unfamiliar with his work alike. Hong’s movies often have featured male characters in a crisis, artists (most of them film directors) unfulfilled by public reception and various degrees of success, and often very aware of their poor behavior, which includes disgraced drunkenness from too much soju and infidelity. It has been quite irresistible for reviewers of Hong’s works to tie those films’ portrayals to autobiography, that art imitates life/life imitates art reaching new heights with the tabloid scandal of Hong’s marriage dissolving after an extramarital affair with South Korean actress Kim Minhee (who at this point has made five films with him, including The Day After). Hong’s films themselves do feel confessional in a way that invites such readings, his works full of auto-critique in the various misbehaviors of his main characters and the fragility of masculinity, particularly in the character of the male artist played to hilarious, exasperated comic effect, which has earned him comparisons to Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen. Not everyone appreciates this auto-critique, however, mainly due to how often this has been repeated in his work over and over. It would also be reductive to say his films are, as they have been deemed and dismissed, ‘all the same’. Hong’s early works showed a melodramatic streak as well as a creative, unique playfulness with structure that has become more intricate, audacious, and mysterious but also highly aware of the nature of his films’ non-linearity, an artist completely confident in how to disperse and re-litigate his own film’s stories, logic, and plots, even halfway through.

The Day After continues and expands on those virtues while making choices that confront and interrogate his characters in a more direct way. In fact, The Day After begins with an interrogation by a wife, Song Haewoo (Cho Yunhee), of her husband, Kim Bongwan (Kwan Haehyo), over her suspicion that he’s having an affair. It’s frank, brutal, and direct, taking place in their home kitchen, a setting often synonymous with marital domesticity and bliss. Infidelity may be a mark and trait of many Hong characters but rarely so early in his films is the act, not yet seen by the viewer, discovered and called out, and by the harmed party no less. What proceeds after in this film is not so much connecting the dots to that first moment but slowly shifting perspectives from Bangwon to a woman who might have and could have meant something to him.

Shot in black-and-white (as Hong has shot with other notable works such as Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors and The Day He Arrives), The Day After follows Bongwan, who runs a small publishing house in South Korea and has hired a new employee, Song Areum (Kim Minhee), to replace the woman he had an affair with, Lee Changsook (Kim Saebyeok). Bongwan, who the audience has seen internalizing and carrying much pain for his actions while walking the lonely city streets at night, appears to have taken an immediate liking to Areum, whom he invites to lunch, asking her questions that feel less professional and more like romantic advances. Bongwan cannot seem to resist his impulses, ones which have taken a toll on his wife, his lover (who repeatedly calls him cowardly), and, ultimately, Areum, who gets attacked by Haewoo on her first day at work after being mistaken for the lover.

Mistaken identity, memory, and place, or being unable to place a face to a person, act, or ideal, is at the center of The Day After. Haewoo is hurt and cannot help but act out against a figure that had her husband step out–she is not attacking the person but the act and the actor that played a role in her betrayal, and Bongwan cannot seem to break his circle of repeated indiscretions such that after one woman may or may not be out of the picture, he chases another. Hong casts a cynical eye toward Bongwan’s behavior and resolution in a way more damning and more cutting than any previous “auto-critique” in his work. That cynicism exists due to the shift of perspective from Bongwan to Areum.

Areum enters her first day at the publishing house as an admirer of Bongwan. She at first goes along with Bongwan’s suggestions and questions that blur the lines of a simple work relationship. But her opinion of Bongwan declines as soon as she gets caught in his tangled web of love, life, and work which results in her job status at the publishing house wavering over the course of the day once the attack she suffers at the hand’s of Bongwan’s wife occurs. There is something unusual about Areum from the beginning that makes her immediately different from the wife and the lover. Having no history with Bongwan, she also probes him and even under her non-judgmental gaze, Bongwan falls short in answering her questions. Her interrogation should be the least hard and he still struggles. They were never meant to be and it is clear that Areum dodges a bullet.

Kim Minhee’s performance, while not as soulful, vulnerable, and spur of the moment as her turns in On The Beach At Night Alone or Right Now, Wrong Then, still relies on her physicality and innocent but not-suffering-fool’s intelligence. When she first appears at the publishing house she appears overwhelmed by the claustrophobic confines of stacks upon stacks of books, looking very meek. She practically seems to be on the verge of escaping the frame when she is shot, on the fringes, feeling like she could pull away at any moment because she is not fated for Bongwan’s world. When he asks her what she believes in, Areum confesses she does not feel like she is the master of her own self, “not a leading character”. Then in the film’s perspective shift, once leaving Bongwan’s orbit, rather than leaving the film, Areum becomes more centered, in control, moving towards God’s plan for her, as she becomes the film’s leading character. Areum slowly moves towards the center of the frame that culminates in one of the most beautiful scenes of Hong’s career with a close-up of Areum in the passenger’s seat of a car taking in the night.

Hong’s longtime cinematographer, Kim Hyeonggu, whose filmography has extended to working with other South Korean masters Bong Joonho and Lee Changdong, gets wrongfully maligned for Hong’s films having a seeming aesthetic simplicity to them, known more for pans and zooms than something showier. The black-and-white in The Day After is beautiful and sleek, but film’s visual pleasures come from Hong’s confidence in his cinematographer and leading actress to visually present a character taking the reigns of film from our original protagonist with the way Areum is shot and is performed through the course of the film. There is also the clever staging, scenes in which Areum is the only one to see the faces of characters while the audience is left to look at Kim Minhee’s expressive facial reactions, suggestive and intriguing.

After making what was his most emotionally naked film to date with On The Beach At Night Alone, The Day After also has a raw nerve in it, but it gives the audience the ability to step away. The film features a musical motif (composed by Hong himself) that takes on the most high-pitched moments of sorrow that can be so operatic but also gives them a comic twist due to the fraught emotions which consume certain characters, an effect which seems purposeful. When shifting from Bongwan to Areum, the film and viewer are emancipated and so is that motif. There are other stories to tell about what The Day After presents and moves towards. But it is not simple in its shifts: for example Areum return to Bangwon’s publishing house, which becomes a major comic payoff. Areum seems to be the only character not trapped within a cycle of behaviors and relationship drama. She can confess freely, experience, and learn to move forward in life, a new type of character for Hong Sangsoo that makes the film a flashpoint in his career and one of his best films.

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Grass (Hong Sangsoo, 2018)

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Evan Morgan: Let’s start with the title. Hong arguably crafts the best titles of any filmmaker working today; something like On the Beach at Night Alone is tinged with mystery, poetical and allusive. Grass, on the other hand, sounds quite atypical: earthy, prosaic, direct. Critical writing on Hong often runs the risk of devolving into a game of spot-the-differences (full disclosure: it’s a game I like to play) but this title, which initially seems uncharacteristic, continues a certain tendency of Hong’s: to telegraph to his audience, quite literally, which objects might exercise a totemic effect on the film, objects that can shape and reshape the narrative. Claire’s Camera, Oki’s Movie, On the Occasion of Remembering Turning Gate. So why, then, Grass? The film does open with some kind of potted shrub, though it quickly moves to the interior space of nearby café. At one point, a few characters wander over to crouch down near the plant and it does make one final appearance after the credits roll, but it never takes center stage quite like those other objects. Whatever power it exerts over Hong’s narrative is merely suggestive, lacking the obvious metaphorical potential of, say, Huppert’s camera. The title speaks, rather modestly, of things that grow, of fecundity and naturalness and finally—dare I say—of a kind of utopia.

We’ll get to where Grass ultimately ends up, I’m sure, but let’s linger on the road for a while—and a verdant lane it is not. The film is haunted by at least two deaths (more on that later too), and, for much of its short runtime, a rather cruel work.

Sean Gilman: I do think there’s something to the title. Initially I thought of Whitman, the source as well of the title for On the Beach at Night Alone, especially when you mentioned to me that the Korean version of the title more directly translates to “Grass Leaves”. Whitman apparently chose Leaves of Grass as the title of his life’s work, continuously revised, as a pun. Quoting wikipedia quoting someone else: “”Grass” was a term given by publishers to works of minor value, and “leaves” is another name for the pages on which they were printed.” Hong’s Grass too is made up of stories of seemingly minor value, exchanges and conversations that are variations on theme Hong has been working with for over twenty years now, losing some value perhaps in their repetition.

But I also think about the title in relation to Carl Sandberg and his poem of the same name. That poem is specifically about death, about the dead men of Austerlitz, Waterloo, Gettysburg and Verdun, shoveled under and covered by grass.  The final lines I think give a new perspective to our Hongian short stories, perhaps shedding some light on Kim Minhee’s role in the film:

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?

I am the grass.
Let me work.

Kim sits in her café, like us overhearing various Hongian conversations, about love gone wrong and suicide and horny actors trying to convince women to let them stay with them for a few days. She takes in the stories and writes. . . something. We don’t know what. She could be writing the characters themselves (twenty years of Hong has taught us to expect that kind of thing) or she could just be writing what she thinks about them. Or she could be inspired by their stories to create new ones of her own. She covers them all, if they’d just let her work.

I suppose I’m getting ahead of where we should be in trying to review this film, but it’s such an unusual work that it’s hard to talk about it as a linearly progressing narrative. It has that, a story of a day in the life of a café and the people who hang around there, each with their own little story arc and unique interaction with Kim’s own. It’s basically a network narrative, along the lines of Robert Altman, but Altman’s cynical coldness (which Hong adopted frequently, especially in his early work) is leavened by the film’s raw emotionality and its omnipresent score, dominated by long stretches of the lush romanticism of Schubert and Wagner. In its circularity, an essential feature of Altman’s network stories (and as opposed to, say, Richard Linklater’s), the film invites increasingly mystical readings. The café could be a way station in the afterlife, it could be a fictional construct of a writer dealing with her own issues (perhaps she had a friend or lover recently commit suicide?), or it could just be an ordinary café. As is usual with Hong, I end up deciding that it is all those things (and more) at the same time.

EM: I like the idea of the café as afterlife—and in that way your citation of Sandberg might not be so far off. There’s one telling line of dialogue that really stuck out to me. The oldest actor, who appears to be recovering from a deep bout of depression, mentions an attempt to take his own life: “after my suicide I didn’t drink much.” It might be a consequence of translation, but to me that particular phrasing implies that the man who speaks the line may already be dead. But, as you suggest, Hong is too protean an artist, too resistant to metaphor, to allow for a reading that thuddingly literary. To allude to Whitman again, there are always multitudes.

In a great interview that CinemaScope ran a few years back, Hong drew a weird little sketch with the caption “infinite worlds possible,” and though he’s played with repetition and narrative branching before, I do wonder if Grass realizes that principle most fully: instead of his oft-used this-then-that structure, which is multivalent but still fundamentally linear, Grass seems to hover between worlds, never committing to one or the other. The overwhelming sense here is one of simultaneity. I’m thinking of something as simple as that first pan from a couple in the café to Kim, who is also in the café but near the window, just off-screen. The way Hong shoots the interior of the café prevents us from obtaining a complete understanding of the space: it’s always segmented into this table or that table, this couple or that couple. So when he initially cuts from Kim contemplating her writing to a man and a woman speaking, one naturally assumes that these are her fictional creations, that we’ve moved onto a different narrative plane. But after a few minutes of chatter, Hong casually tracks over to Kim, and two worlds, previously understood to be apart, are fused together. When taken in combination with the wall-to-wall music (which I’m glad you mentioned; it’s integral to the emotional texture of the film) moments like this create a sense of the film rising and converging, a crescendo effect prolonged until the final moments.

That effect is also an essential feature of the network film; the movements of a dozen roundelays suddenly click together. Though I wasn’t thinking of Altman. The Rivette of Haut bas fragile and Va savoir came to mind: actors swirling around a central location, lives bleeding into fiction, and the bar or café transformed into a theater (what is a writer doing in a café if not performing the act of writing?). And there’s nothing more Rivettian in Hong’s body of work than that sequence which comes about halfway through Grass, where one of the women appears to achieve some kind of breakthrough (or maybe it’s a breakfrom: from the network of couples, from the café, from the fiction) by traversing a staircase over and over again. She begins the scene frustrated but ends, after much physical exertion, elated and smiling. In its trajectory from anger to some kind of bliss, it functions as a perfect synecdoche for the film.

SG: You know I love that sequence, one of the most singular in all of Hong’s work. Like the piggyback ride in Hahaha it’s a wholly unexpected physical expression of an unnameable feeling, but even more abstract, because we know so little about that woman. We’d met her earlier: she’s a writer with whom the director from Claire’s Camera is hoping to work. They form the third of the three couples we meet in the café. She rebuffs his advances, and he moves on to make a similar offer to Kim herself (the first character to actually interact with her), while the writer goes away (she says she has to meet. . . her boyfriend? I forget). We don’t see her again until sometime later, after the events in the restaurant, right? In that strange interlude after the mood of the film has turned its sourest (the interrogation scene and Kim’s fight with her brother)? But then, with her repeated climbing and descending, as her mood changes so does that of the film. Kim undergoes something similar: walking back to the café she hears a song, some kind of folk pop song coming from somewhere. She walks past and it diminishes, then she walks back toward it and it grows louder. We don’t know what happens next, Hong elides it, but when we’re back in the café everything has changed. It’s like the movie is wholly uninterested in traditional narrative trajectory (the this-then-that you refer to), rather trying to capture the rising and falling (and vice versa) feeling of music itself. Never has a Hong film been so structured by mood.

At the same time, its building blocks are the typical Hongian games of repetition. All three men in the café are actors, though at different stages of life and career. Three women are asked by a man if he can live with them for awhile. There are three suicides, two successful (or maybe three, if this is the afterlife). There are three writers (counting Kim). All the conversations are standard Hong table shots, except one. That one, what I’ve been calling the “interrogation scene”, is one of the more intense conversations of Hong’s career, as raw as the opening fight in Yourself and Yours but much more cruel. It’s not a table shot, but rather a long over-the-shoulder one of a man questioning a woman he thinks contributed to their mutual friend’s suicide (by inducing him to drink too much). The camera holds on her face for a long time, we never see his. But the most unusual thing is when it pans away from them to the wall, where we see the man’s shadow speaking while any trace of the woman has been erased. It may be the most horrifying thing Hong has ever shot, and that’s including the bloody finale of The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well.

EM: Why is that “interrogation scene” so upsetting? The narrative material is well-trod ground, so it must be a consequence of that pan to the wall that you highlight, which is almost a mirror image of the earlier pan to Kim in the café: instead of fusing two worlds, it tears them apart. A form of erasure, as you suggest. Or maybe it’s that over-the-shoulder framing: at some point in the movie one of the actors jokes that “it feels like we’re being observed” and there’s a way in which Hong’s constricted compositions throughout amplify the general air of surveillance. The “standard table shot” you refer to typically balances the performers across the center of the frame. Hong isn’t aiming for Premingerian objectivity, I don’t think, but his customary approach deploys none of the film grammar which typically signals perspective. But this film does. Given Kim’s role as outsider looking in, as a potential artificer weaving fiction from what she sees, the film’s attention to the act of watching—and being watched—seems essential to its final purpose.

Which brings me back to my claim that Grass arrives, ultimately, at a place of renewal. The network of couples end up back in the café—or just outside, in the case of Kim’s brother and his girlfriend—for another night of reminisces. Kim initially hovers back, as she has done throughout, apart and alone, but after sharing a smoke outside with one of the men she finally joins the group. The writer brought back into the fold of life. Grass features, arguably, more plot than any Hong since the ‘90s. But all the incident is there just to bring us to this one moment: inviting Kim to join in on a classic Hong table shot. Only Hong could conceive of a movie in which something as simple as sitting down at a café table seems to lighten the weight of all the world’s loneliness.

Claire’s Camera (Hong Sangsoo, 2017)

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Mysterious Object at Cannes

Claire’s Camera, barely over an hour long and shot in about a week at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, isn’t even the best Hong Sangsoo movie of the past year. That would be On the Beach at Night Alone. Nor is it likely to be the most popular, with The Day After, which like Claire’s Camera played at Cannes this year, more likely to attract an audience outside of Hong’s hardcore devotees, with a look and mood more in line with the masters of the European art film. But there isn’t a film this year that I’ve had more fun thinking about and rewatching than Claire’s Camera, with the possible exceptions of Baahubali 2 and the film Hong had at this year’s SIFF (and last year’s VIFF), Yourself and Yours. Every Hong film gets better the more times you watch it, his peculiarly fluid approach to reality and temporality make even the most basic elements of his scenarios matters for speculation, kaleidoscopic objects that shift not only meaning but cause and effect with every new viewing. But Claire’s Camera is exceptional in this regard. Each time I’ve seen it, I’ve had to invent a whole new theory of the film, none of which have so far managed to explain all the facts as they’re presented. Watching it is like trying to solve a puzzle in which several key pieces are missing. I’m going to try and work through it here, which will involve sorting through the plot in detail. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should, it’s delightful. But you should probably stop reading now if spoilers concern you.

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Between Work: A Conversation on Claire’s Camera and The Day After

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Evan Morgan: The sun’s out, palm trees are in sight, and we’ve temporarily traded in soju for sancerre. Hong Sang-soo is en vacance again. I don’t know about you Sean, but I’m always happy to see Hong in the literally and figuratively breezy mode that he takes up in Claire’s Camera. The seasons have long played a central role in the Hong project, though it seems that the tonal vacillation between his summer and winter films grows with each passing year. Hong’s sense of humor lilts along during the warmer months, and though it never goes entirely dormant in wintertime, it cools and takes on a serrated edge, like cracked ice. Claire’s Camera, in keeping with this seasonal dichotomy, might be his most amiable movie yet, defined as it is by Isabelle Huppert’s warm naiveté and the dabs of sunflower yellow provided by her summer frock. Huppert’s flightiness bleeds into the plotting too, which moves with a nonchalance that borders on amateurishness. I mean that as a compliment. It strikes me that Hong’s acceptance into the upper echelon of the art cinema world (the film unfolds during Cannes, after all) occurred simultaneously with his loosened production methods, and though the competition gatekeepers prefer the more somber Seoul films, the animating spirit of later Hong owes much to the laidback atmosphere of friends who vacation together and decide, ‘what the hell let’s make a movie.’ It’s not for nothing that this most amateur of Hong films is set against the backdrop of the world’s premier film festival.

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Yourself and Yours (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)

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Yourself and Yours isn’t the latest film from South Korean director Hong Sangsoo, that would be On the Beach at Night Alone, which premiered a few weeks ago at the Berlin Film Festival (where it picked up a Best Actress award) and which Evan wrote about here last week (Evan has also written here about both Yourself and Yours and its trailer). Yourself and Yours may still come to Seattle Screens, Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then played here last summer, almost a year after its festival premiere in 2015. It’s probable that if it does, it won’t be until after another new Hong movie plays the Cannes Film Festival, as his Claire’s Camera is rumored to be finished by that time. With a director this prolific (since taking a year off in 2007, Hong has directed thirteen feature films in ten years) it’s easy for a film here or there to get lost in the mix, especially given the lethargic pace at which films today move from the festival circuit to the theatrical art house. The system simply isn’t designed, at present, for a director who releases a new film every nine months. This isn’t unique to Hong (the similarly prolific Johnnie To has had equally haphazard distribution) nor is it unique to the present (take a look sometime at the distribution schedule of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960s period). But don’t let these institutional vagaries obscure the fact that Hong is in the midst of one of the great cinematic winning streaks, a frenetic burst of creative energy that comes along only a few times in a generation. And Yourself and Yours, seemingly already forgotten though it premiered just six months ago, epitomizes the greatness of that streak as well as anything.

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VIFF 2016: Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, 2016)


A comedy of remarriage as only Hong Sang-soo could imagine it, Yourself and Yours rearranges the familiar building blocks of social anxiety, sex, and—most of all—soju to tell the story of one couple’s breakup and reunion. Or, given that this is Hong’s protean world, perhaps it’s not a reunion at all but a new couple, newly formed. Key to this Hongian puzzlebox is Minjung, a young woman with a well-known love of drink recently sworn off the sauce at the behest of her boyfriend. Rumors of soju recitivism split the couple up and Minjung encounters two different men who profess to know her from the past. Minjung, for her part, claims no memory of them, offering up a suspicious twin sister look-a-like story or blank stares in response. The exact nature of these  misidentifications forms the film’s core mystery. It’s certainly possible that Minjung’s penchant for drink has obliterated these men from her mind, though it’s equally plausible that the self is an infinitely branching set of traits, often repeated and therefore identifiable, but always shifting emphasis, shape, and order, so also essentially unstable. Sounds like Hong’s movies.

Unlike his other recent features, Yourself and Yours offers no structural blueprint at the outset. Hill of Freedom‘s jumbled letters explain that film’s disorganized narration and Right Now, Wrong Then‘s initial title card (the inverted Wrong Then, Right Now) clues the attentive Hong viewer into the game being played. The dissipated dreaminess that governs Nobody’s Daughter Haewon comes closest, but with a crucial difference: Minjung does not appear to be dreaming. None of the strange happenings emanate from her consciousness. If anything, the unblinking earnestness of actress You-Young Lee’s performance ensures that Minjung remains a fixed point, no matter the cognitive dissonance she inflicts on the men around her. She is a mystery to others but never to herself.

That self-assurance allows Minjung to act the Hongian sage, the one character with sufficient wisdom to proffer extra-filmic advice: “Knowing is not as important as we think.” Perhaps that’s the only explanation for this hall of mirrors, though if this is a Stanley Cavellian comedy, as the final moments suggest, it’s one that takes his idea of transformation literally: “I am changed before your eyes, different so to speak from myself, hence not different. To see this you will have to correspondingly suffer metamorphosis.” Is Minjung’s mutable personhood just a screwball game to win back her lover, to make him transform? He can’t deny his partner’s true self (I drink therefore I am) and expect to keep her. So she wins. Is her victory a consequence of drunken forgetfulness, a spatiotemporal rupture, farcical roleplay? The beauty of Hong’s cinema lies in never having to choose.

Yourself and Yours (Trailer) (Hong Sangsoo, 2016)

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Hong Sang-soo has a t-shirt. As reported by the seemingly omniscient Hong Sang-soo Web Twitter account, the 2016 Locarno Film Festival featured some sartorial branding inspired by last year’s top-prize recipient. If you were lucky enough to spend your August in a palatial Swiss town and decided that nothing said “European Summer” like shuffling between darkened movie theaters, you might have been lucky enough to snatch up one of the shirts, fittingly adorned with a tipsy sketch by the Korean master scrawled above the Hongian pseudo-motto: “Infinite Worlds Possible.” And just like that, with a major European festival prize now under his belt and branded UNIQLO-lite duds, it seems Hong has officially become an event.

Of course, we’re talking about the niche of the niche here. 18 films into his career Hong’s audience has grown more than some of the long-time loyalists likely thought possible, though he’s not exactly setting the box office ablaze. The yearly anticipation for his new film feels a bit more communal than it once did, still rolling around with the same regularity but with greater pomp among the ever-important Film Twitter cognoscenti. What self-respecting cine-kid doesn’t want a Hong shirt this time of year? It’s festival season. It’s Hong time. And right on cue, we got a trailer.

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Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)

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The following is a slightly modified reprint of my review from last fall’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

The Hong Sangsoo film is a perennial highlight of every VIFF (I’ve seen Like You Know it All, Oki’s Movie, Hahaha, In Another Country, Our Sunhi and Hill of Freedomhere over the years) and Right Now, Wrong Then is no disappointment. It’s a very good film, while lacking the formal experimentation that distinguishes his best work (Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives) or the sheer giddy pleasure of his funniest movies (Hill of Freedom, In Another Country), it has a precision and focus that assures that, despite a certain conventionality, it will become one of his more popular features (note: This has turned out to be accurate, the film has garnered Hong some of the best reviews and one of the widest releases of his career so far). Split evenly in two halves, it follows a film director, in town for a festival showing and Q & A, as he wanders about a tourist site where he meets a young woman. They talk, drink soju, make awkward approaches at romance and ultimately split when the director is proven to be a dishonest, womanizing lout. Then the film resets, complete with a new title card (the first half is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, the second “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and we replay the same day but with significant differences. The director in this version is honest and open (perhaps to a fault, as when a drunken overheating compels him to strip naked in front of his companions). Hong significantly varies his camera setups in the second section, creating more balanced compositions where in the first half the setups tended to privilege the director’s perspective (including a Hong rarity: an actual POV shot). It’s a mature film, relaxed and confident with a simple truth to tell. But underlying it all is a palpable loneliness. It’s played as sadness, as tragedy in the first half, where the director’s faults lead to failure and angry isolation. In the second half, it’s a wistful melancholy, where people can find happiness in connecting with an other, with the full knowledge that any such connection is necessarily temporary. It’s a quiet and sweet film, a warm room on a cold night, and vice versa.

VIFF 2015: Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sangsoo, 2015)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

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The new Hong Sangsoo film, Right Now, Wrong Then, is very much concerned with the famed director’s usual themes. He is again at work with a story involving a hard-drinking filmmaker and the nature of casual encounters. But the movie is less about its surface than with an inquiry into its structural narrative. As always, it’s the differences from the works that came before it that excite. The nice thing about Right Now, Wrong Then is that it also affords the joys of differentiating it from itself.

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