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Korean Director Hong Sang-soo Is Living One of His Movies

Life imitating art imitating life

Getty Images
Getty Images

Hong Sang-soo should be basking in one of the greatest moments of his professional life right now. The Korean director’s 17th feature film, Right Now, Wrong Then, opened this past weekend in select U.S. theaters and at least one critic has described it as “the very best film released in 2016 so far,” amongst other glowing reviews in the American press.

In Right Now, Wrong Then, a man’s clumsy, relentless flirtation with a younger woman is repeated in separate parts that recount the same sequence of events twice — nearly identical, but with small stylistic and dialogue differences that subtly alter the narrative. He’s a filmmaker; she’s an aspiring artist. “I think I’m in love,” he tells her after a few soju shots too many. “I want to marry, but I don’t think I can. You see, I’m already married.”

Quite apropos. It’s somewhat surprising that none of the English-language reviews I’ve read mention Hong’s real-life romantic imbroglio. In South Korea, where Right Now, Wrong Then came and went quietly last September, the current news about Hong has a decidedly different tenor. The 55-year-old filmmaker has reportedly abandoned his wife of 30 years for a relationship with the star of Right Now, Wrong Then, 34-year-old actress Kim Min-hee.

It’s irresistible tabloid fodder. In fact, the scandal is the most press Hong has ever received in Korea, despite being critically adored overseas (where he has been co-signed by Martin Scorsese and is the subject of museum retrospectives). In his homeland, Hong’s arthouse oeuvre has barely made a box office ripple; in this affair, the actress is by far the bigger draw.

“Prolific” is the adjective most often attached to Hong’s name: He’s made at least a movie per year for nearly a decade. “Repetitive” might be another one. At a glance, Hong’s films examine the collusionary dance of modern courtship; in focus, they are all about ponderous men of middling creative success and their cringe-inducing, sometimes-drunken pursuit of women — and the havoc that inevitably ensues post-consummation.

“Genius” is the adjective I’d choose. Since seeing Hong’s Turning Gate at a film festival in 2002 — still, for my money, his best film — I’ve religiously (and repeatedly) watched his entire catalog. Within are nuanced vignettes that I recognize, awkward dialogue I’ve heard and said, and bumbling characters to whom I fully relate, sometimes painfully (though I will admit only to being a Korean man of very middling creative success).

In reality, the sordid circumstances of Hong’s romance with Kim are more befitting a Korean melodrama than one of his films. As breathlessly reported by Dispatch, Korea’s version of TMZ, Hong and Kim met and fell in love in the beginning of last year while filming Right Now, Wrong Then. Hong’s wife later caught wind of the relationship, leading to a dramatic confrontation with Kim in which her younger rival allegedly uttered this already infamous line: “That’s why you should’ve managed your husband better.” (Soon after the news, Hong’s Wikipedia page had a fresh update.) For her part, Hong’s wife is apparently staying the course. “I won’t be getting a divorce … I’ll wait until the day I die,” she was quoted as saying — again, Korean melodrama. “My husband is going to come back to us.”

Hong’s reputation has certainly taken a blow, especially with reports that suggest that he diverted money from his daughter’s college fund to financially support his new girlfriend. But in the classic double standard, it’s Kim who will likely face the more severe career consequences. The actress has been universally painted as a cold, manipulative seductress and homewrecker; much of the internet chatter has disapprovingly alluded to her past history of dating Korean celebrities. This scandal comes as her most recent film, Park Chan-wook’s Cannes-approved The Handmaiden, is near the top of the Korean box office. Kim’s next move in Korea, however, is unclear. When the momentum of negative media and “netizen” reactions in Korea hits high tide, it can drown a promising career.

Both Hong and Kim are reportedly in the U.S., effectively in exile. Neither has yet commented on their relationship. Part of me thinks that Hong will relocate here, or perhaps to Paris, where his films are adored and often likened to those of Éric Rohmer. Hong is already at work on his 18th film, reportedly titled Yourself and Yours, about — quelle surprise — a male artist and his relationship struggles. As for Kim: one hopes that her talent is not permanently overshadowed in Korea by this seamy saga — though I suspect it will be.

For now, we can only knowingly watch Right Now, Wrong Then (which is streaming on Fandor) to find clues, Mr. & Mrs. Smith style, in the dialogue between Kim’s character and Hong’s proxy. “I love you because you’re so pretty,” he says to his new obsession at one point. “Thank you for making me feel this way. I’ll treasure it forever.”

I will, too. More than ever, Hong’s next movie will be an absolute must-see.