London 2015: 'Right Now, Wrong Then' review

★★★☆☆
When the title-card for South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's latest charming confection pops up with 'Right Then, Wrong Now' it's not a mistake, or a symptom of the viewer going mad, but an earlier indicator as to the narrative playfulness of Right Now, Wrong Then (2015). Employing a structural gimmick to far more interesting effect than last year's The Hill of Freedom (2014), Hong explores how slightest change in the wind can alter the course of life. Naturally, he does this in a whimsical tale that wends its way through the foothills of a tentative romance. It's endearing, but unlikely to convert those that have previously resisted the director's charms.

A director's charms are in fact the decisive factor in the opening half of proceedings, which are then reset and replayed after almost precisely the hour mark but with minute differences taking events in new directions. Hong is once again having a little fun at his own expense with the lead character being filmmaker Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young). He's a silver-tongued womaniser, saying exactly the right things at the right times to shy young artist Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee). As they awkwardly converse through a day out together - in the sort of way that only Hong protagonists are able - affection seems to bloom between them only for Han's touching insight into Hee-jung's painting to be shown up as 'line' and his prior misdemeanours exposed. Events are then rewound, however, and a subtly shifted day plays out.

There's much fun to be had spotting the divergences from one version to the next, both in terms of the conversational tone and - less perceptibly - visual composition. Some scenes are shot from exactly the same angle, but others are skewed just a little to shift the focus of the action or to allow for an alternative use of Hong's immediately recognisable crash-zoom. As events unfurl for the second time, Chu-san is less on a charm offensive, and more likely to offend, offering forthright honesty in place of his previously calculation and the benefit of being oneself is evident, even if its not quite so pleasant at the outset. The problem is that the work remains slight, especially given that audiences are not in on the thematic exploration until the day restarts half way through. The conversations are diverting enough, and both Jung and Kim are delightful on screen, but what bones there are cannot be determined until an awful lot has been digested. The patiently played scenario is vintage Hong, but the runtime feels particularly protracted and the lulls and pauses take on their meaning far more successfully once the viewer knows what they're looking at. This will hardly put of Hong's hordes of acolytes - for this is a thematically interesting work - but Right Now, Wrong Then is perhaps best enjoyed by fans.

The London Film Festival takes place from 7-18 October. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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