The thing you have to remember about Korean auteur Hong Sangsoo is that the more of his films you know, the more you'll appreciate each new one. This is important, not only because Mr. Hong's work is an acquired taste: it's important because seeing just the one film isn't going to cut it. You're going to come out asking exactly what was it you just saw.

     What initially seems like throwaway trifles shot in a loose, almost amateurish way turns out to be deceptively thought through: the films aren't careless at all, they're rather simplified to an almost ascetic purity, borderline innocent in the way they record what is happening in front of the camera in a no-frills, no-budget way. There's always an apparent element of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but what matters is that Mr. Hong's cinema is effectively shorn of any surplus requirements: it simply is what it is, aiming to capture that blink-and-you'll-miss-it magic that happens when you least expect it.

     If you've seen more than one film, you will also be able to identify the way that they seem to cross-reference themselves and the recurring motifs and narrative devices, which many equate with Éric Rohmer's gentle flâneries but that in the more elaborate narratives I tend to compare more to Alain Resnais's playfulness. This is the case again with the Locarno winner Right Now, Wrong Then, a sort of "Hong Sangsoo Redux" about a film director (Jung Jaeyoung) who arrives early to a Seoul suburb where his work is being presented, and his awkward romantic advances to a shy painter (Kim Minhee) he casually meets at a museum, before leaving town after the screening the next day.

     The trick is this apparent one-night stand is told twice, "rewinding" as it were midway through the film, according to an imperceptible "butterfly effect" radiating from one of the director's celebrated food-and-drink long-takes (again, another element that stands out if you've seen his work before). First, the story is played for laughs, as director Ham's awkwardness and over-consumption of drink turns him into a buffoonish womanizer who makes all the wrong calls; then, the tale is rewound as bitter-sweet comedy, as Ham opens up to Heejung and there's more of a give-and-take connection between them. Right Now, Wrong Then thus works both as "a night to forget" and "a night to remember", elegantly and discreetly pointing out how an apparently harmless decision makes a world of change.

     But, as always with the director, it does so unobtrusively and almost in the background, and though the film may work as a good entrance point for the neophytes, it's certainly much enriched by prior knowledge of Mr. Hong's cinema. What may seem puzzling or bewildering to a newcomer will be recognised by the aficionado as part and parcel of the director's idiossyncrasies, which do not exist in a vacuum - his acclaim is also due, beyond the obvious qualities of the work, to his refusal to get with any sort of program and follow any other muse than his own. Mr. Hong stands alone and apart, in the absolute freedom his quick, cheap, no-nonsense cinema allows him.

South Korea. 2015. 121 minutes.
Starring Jung Jaeyoung, Kim Minhee, Ko Asung, Choi Hwajung, Seo Younghwa, Kee Joobong, Youn Yuhjung, Yu Hansang
Directed and written by Hong Sangsoo; cinematography Park Hongyeol (colour); music by Jeong Yongjin; film editor Hahm Sungwon; produced by Kim Kyounghee; a Jeonwonsa Film Company production.
Screened August 12th 2015, Teatro Kursaal, Locarno 


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