Hong Sang-soo’s new movie, Right Now, Wrong Then, premiered in Locarno this month, where it won the Golden Leopard. Daniel Kasman and I caught up with Hong the day before his win, on the porch outside his lake-front hotel. As we spoke, dark clouds arriving from the middle of the lake began to swell and drizzle with rain and, as if in reaction to this, the space of the sheltered veranda seemed to grow more and more intimate. Lighting cigarette after cigarette, Hong spoke quietly and at length about his process for Right Now, Wrong Then, which was an enormous success at the festival, both in terms of the aforementioned prize and in terms of general audience response; both public screenings I attended were packed and the crowd raucous with laughter.
The new movie pivots on a single structural gimmick: that, halfway through, the narrative resets and plays out a second time, with all the same scenes—the same settings, the same characters, etc.—but with slightly modified gestures, shifting motivations, and, as we see unfold before us, completely different results. From the start, Hong’s work has employed similar structuralist tricks, typically based on repetition and renewal, to compliment and counterbalance the languor of his rigorous fixed long takes and one-by-one pacing. But where in the other movies the effect of the discontinuous or jumbled structure is to build up the sum total of mystery in the work, in Right Now, Wrong Then this split results in an effect that is almost straightforwardly moralist. Perhaps—and it's certainly tenuous, given the nature of Hong movies to resist paradigms, paradigmatic as their internal and external unity would seem to so boldy suggest—the structure of consecutive, repeatable parts shows Hong, Landis-like, suggesting his timid preference for one type of behavior over another.
As we sat and spoke to the great director, the rain pattering against the plastic cover draped overhead and the drone of engines almost overpowering his quiet voice, Daniel and I were surprised and thankful for his uncharacteristic verbosity in answering our questions about this curious new movie.
CHRISTOPHER SMALL: We wanted to start with a practical question. You mentioned yesterday that your budget was around $100,000...
HONG SANG-SOO: It's not exact, but production itself is around $50,000. After production, post-production, salaries for the people working for me on a daily basis, promotions and things like that, all included it's more or less around $100,000.
SMALL: Is there a process you normally go through to begin a production and get funding together?
HONG: I don't get funding anymore. I can survive.
DANIEL KASMAN: Because you have a regular producer who handles things for you?
HONG: Yes. I work with a very small number of people working for me on almost every film. I have some actors who are willing to work with me for almost nothing. So the cost can be that low, and there are some audiences who regularly see my films in Korea, and some come from foreign countries. So I can make another film, so I don't have to go for funding or things like that.
KASMAN: Does this support free you up to shoot differently?
HONG: I'm very lucky guy. I can make whatever I want, I don't have to discuss anything with anyone.
SMALL: Why do you think you're always returning to the same types of characters? Here we have again the director, the film student, the critic...
HONG: It's convenient [laughs]. It's not that important that they are directors of films, do you know what I mean? I just know more about them. I don't have this need to go to different professions, different types of characters. What I do with these simple elements—if I can call them elements—in each film is important. Not to look for new material, a new type of character, a new type of professional is against my temperament. My temperament is to work with the things I know already, and then find new things. So a filmmaker is just one of these important, simple elements that I know very well. I don't want to work with or make films about a plane pilot [laughs], if I try to describe him maybe I will be very stereotypical.
KASMAN: This film, like many of yours, ends with a kind of lesson: the director behaves better in the film's second story, he is more honest, and the results for him are better. Do your films begin with such core ideas? What was your starting place for Right Now, Wrong Then?
HONG: No, in the beginning I had no idea. These days I start with almost nothing. I deal usually with places and actors, actresses—not characters. I meet them almost with no intention. I just have this feeling, “maybe I want to see this guy or this woman,” then I call them and if they want we have a meeting and I try to see him or her just as a person. I'm not interested in what they did in other pictures. Sometimes I haven't seen any of their pictures. It's okay, it doesn't matter; I just see him or her as a person. I know that when you meet someone you always have a feeling or impression. That small impression is usually the first beginning. That impression always leads me to think about something, reminds me about someone in the past, some situation or dilemma. A small thing, but it's the beginning. And then, because of time limitations, I am also looking for places. Without intention, again, I get a feel for this neighborhood, maybe I go there on Sunday and tour around, if I like. Then I make some deal with the people, a store owner or bar owner—I go there and I say “I'm Hong Sang-soo, and I'll probably shoot for this period. My way of working is strange, I don't know what I'll do, but probably I'll come to this place two times, maybe three times. I'll inform you of the shooting day as soon as I know.” This way, I have places. I have actors. Then maybe I go to some motel or hotel and stay there two or three days and try to think some structure. Sometimes I start even without that. It's okay. Even though I have some idea about structure, what I want to do, it's not really final at all, it's just a kind of pretext to start shooting. Sometimes I start with nothing. Because I have these places, my assistant calls and tells them that I will go there today, I ask these actors to come, and in the morning of the first day I finalize whatever I had in my mind. I shoot something, and I see what I did at the end of the day and try to see the whole picture. If it doesn't come, I try and shoot another one, continuously. Usually, I think, within three days of shooting I have a structure, a whole film. I then follow the structure and maybe, sometimes, half of the shooting I know what I want to do.
KASMAN: Does this process mean that often you don't use the material from these first few days of shooting?
HONG: I use all of them. It's strange, but I think it's my temperament, and I have worked this way a long time. Somehow, I manage to use that material, it can be used. Strange, but I can do that.
SMALL: Do you work with your actors and locations in the same way, determining camera placement on the set that day?
HONG: What they say and what they do is always scripted. In the morning I give them the full script of the day. Before shooting I try to observe as much as I can. I don't want to work with my strong intention, because if you work with a strong intention I think what you do is you repeat what you've heard and what you've seen in the past. It's not new. It's not interesting. So what I try to do is observe and respond to what is given. What is given is more interesting than what I craft by my intentions. Intentions always dangerous for me, always stereotypical—not interesting at all. If I have to work in the line of intention, I will not work. It's so boring. It would be like I'd be a construction worker [laughs], your whole design would be just like a railroad. I need something new, really unexpected things happen every day. Every day something new has to happen, that way I feel alive and want to work.
KASMAN: I heard that you shot the first story and then showed it to the actors and then shot the second part. Can you talk about why you wanted to experiment with this technique?
HONG: That was the first time I did this, I've never done anything like that before. But this time, the film doesn't get a lot of help from the structure itself or the difference in storyline. Even though it looks doubled, the differences are very much in small details, like the differences in the emotional attitudes, facial expressions, voice intonations, things like that. That's what I wanted to do in the beginning, I realized, maybe I wanted to make a film that doubled structurally, but the difference is heavily in the surface level. If there is an obvious difference in storyline or it's structurally completed and understandable at the end, it's easy. But this one—what is this? [laughs] Just two different worlds that logically cannot be explained. Just different worlds. You can sense the difference. Because I cannot make a clear explanation of the relation between two parts; I was hoping that the audience can go to this kind of limbo state, if I can call it this, and “oooh, what is life?” or something like that. [laughs] Maybe that's what I want.
KASMAN: Was it a challenge for you re-direct these scene in a different way?
HONG: Yeah. A little bit of a challenge. That's why I edited the first part and showed them to the main actors. Without explanation, I just showed it at the end, saying “maybe you want to become a little more lonely, a little more like this.” Simple direction. And to the guy, “maybe you have a similar experience as when you met her before, but this time you have a strong feeling, you want to be a good man to this woman.” Simple direction, not much explanation.
SMALL: When you showed them the first half, was it all edited so you completely assembled the first half as it is now in the finished film?
HONG: Yeah, almost the same. We were shooting in Suwon city, staying in a hostel, and a motel, all the crew was staying there and I edited it and showed it to the actors.
SMALL: What is the editing process like for you, how long does it take?
HONG: Very short. Really, just one day. Not much cutting! [laughs] There are just very few scenes and usually I know what I want. It takes very short, like in three or four hours I can do the whole picture. And then I need to have a break so I can see it more objectively, so I come back in a week. Then I show it to some of my friends to get more objective pictures. Everyone has different feelings for it. Then I kind of assemble it.
KASMAN: It sounds like the film is constantly evolving, as you're shooting it, it's changing, as you're editing it, it's changing. Every day it's changing.
HONG: That's what I need.
KASMAN: Did the film surprise you, at the end?
HONG: When I showed it to my friends, I was very curious, very curious. Two hours, waiting... [laughs].
SMALL: And what is the audience saying here?
HONG: I have a kind of feel of for the quality of applause, and I think it was very good, yeah...accepting.
KASMAN: I was wondering with these long take scenes, the sushi, the cafe, the party, how many takes does it usually take to get it right? It seems like there's a lot of choreography with the lines and the objects.
HONG: It depends on the scene, of course. If it goes long, it can sometimes be 15 takes, sometimes more. Usually more or less 7 or 8, that's the average. Sometimes that's enough.
KASMAN: And in the drinking scenes?
HONG: When they are really drinking, really drinking, I expect to have an okay take in two or three takes, because if you go over...
KASMAN: In the first sushi scene in Right Now, Wrong Then the actor seemed very drunk.
HONG: He was. The sushi bar scene they are drunk. So we got it maybe in the second take. I tell them, “if you are really drinking we can never do 10 takes. Everyone concentrate, be brave, and go for it!”
KASMAN: Your opening theme music is often in a similar style. Can you talk how you work with your composer?
HONG: I think I have an idea about the music. I use a very rhythmic, kind of fast rhythmic base. The melody is short, like a children's song. Pure melody that's pleasant. That's the two elements I always ask for. With simple instruments—three things.
SMALL: The music we hear inside the movie theatre at the end is from Hill of Freedom, right?
HONG: Yes. If the music is too strong it collides with what I do in the picture. I don't want to see that. Also, I don't want to get this kind of emotional help from the music. I want it in the middle, I want the music to sound a little independent, but also to give some help—to play together [hands intertwining], not beneath, not over, not too strong.
KASMAN: In this film, because the woman's character is very subtle between the two stories, and the man's character is more clearly different, I was always looking at her to see her response to his difference. For me, she was the guide to see how the world was different. Do you approach women as moral guides or as validation, to see if you are doing something right?
HONG: Maybe, yeah. Also, with men too. We are supposed to feel that, but with women more. I never thought about that, hmm. I think that, if I can call it this, “true love” between men and women is the most precious thing in life. True love. Something very hard to get or maintain. So in that way, maybe, what you said is right. In my third film, there's an intertitle that is from Shakespeare [“Nought shall go ill; The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.”]. I really believe that. Life seems very complicated and there are many, many types of problems. But if you find really someone you really love, truly, and you're successful with that relationship, everything else is not too hurtful. But it's so hard to get, that's why we always go for different solutions. Am I romantic? [laughs]
SMALL: That brings us nicely to the end of the film. The film has been pretty straight and almost ironic and there are lots of laughs in it. But then the ending is surprisingly tender, you see the woman in the cinema and the director comes in and sits behind her and they have this nice conversation. And when she goes outside, it's snowing. How did you bring this into the film, the changing weather?
HONG: That day the snow fell, and I thank heaven for that. That's the way of my working, I always adapt to what is given. I don't want to start with my full intention. Full intention is always, always boring. Small intention and lots of openings for what is given, and respond to it in that moment and try to make something, in the end, of one piece. It's my temperament.