Tokyo Film Festival: Korean director Hong Sang-soo gives us two variations on one love story – both as elegant as they are emotional

If you thought the irreconcilable natures of free will and fate were rivetingly examined by Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, just wait until you get a load of the new Hong Sang-soo film. Right Now, Wrong Then, which screened at the Tokyo Film Festival earlier this week, is an hour-long love story, told twice – but with tiny variations that send each version on a dramatically different emotional course.

Like many of Hong’s films, it’s a playfully structured, bluffly unglamorous romantic comedy of manners about a filmmaker and a pretty young woman – in this case, the familiarly named Han Chun-su (Jeong Jae-yeong), a feted auteur who’s come to the snow-dusted town of Suwon to present his latest work at a festival, and Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), an artist he meets while killing time at a local temple. But while it’s conspicuously similar to the rest of Hong’s work, its delicately doubled-up plots are a very Hong-ish reminder that trivial differences are often anything but.

Version One, for example, begins with a subtly jumbled title card – Right Then, Wrong Now – that perfectly sets the tone for the "hey, wait a second…" cognitive gymnastics that watching the rest of the film entail.

Even though the rough narrative shape of each story is the same – there’s a chance encounter at a temple, a trip to a coffee shop, a visit to Hee-jung’s studio, a drunken sashimi dinner, and a blearily awkward house party – their dramatic rhythms are very different, and after the half-time reset (complete with right-way-round title), you find yourself constantly comparing what you actually saw with what you expected to see.

Min-hee Kim and Yeo-jeong Yoon in Right Now, Wrong Then

What’s surprising about this isn’t how difficult it is, but how easy. More than one viewing is almost certainly required to spot even half of the differences. But you’ll notice enough (even though most are incredibly delicate) to apprehend the film’s broader point that life is lived in the same way as art is made – as a series of trifling choices that somehow add up to something meaningful.

In both versions of the story, for instance, Chun-su offers to carry Hee-jung’s plastic bag for her shortly after they first meet – but in the second, he also sneaks a peek at its contents. It’s a tiny detail, but its effect registers immediately, precisely because you already know how things panned out without it – and the unexpected flash of heat it brings to their connection is immediately apparent.

The discrepancies are also reflected in Hong’s camera which shoots scenes from subtly different angles, allows long takes to run on even longer than before, and deploys those odd, hiccuppy zooms of which he’s so fond at different crucial junctures in the drama.

Both Jeong and Kim invest such intelligence in their roles that neither version of the story feels like the "correct" one – you’re just watching two potential versions of fate play out between two rounded and sharply plausible human beings. (Though one runs smoother than the other, it’s not necessarily the more successful of the two.) Hong’s screenplay, meanwhile, gambols between piercing emotional insight and moments of trouser-dropping farce with a low-key elegance that Richard Curtis could learn a lot from.

Away from the festival circuit, only one of Hong’s 17 films to date, 2013’s Our Sunhi, has made it to British cinemas. But though Right Now, Wrong Then might not be as instantly loveable as last year’s culture-clash bonbon, Hill of Freedom, or his elliptical 2012 Cannes entry In Another Country, it’s a film that deserves to grow Hong’s overseas following. No director working today can carry out this kind of heavyweight emotional excavation with such feather-light flicks of his trowel. That’s Hong’s gift, as counterintuitive as it is unique: he makes molehills out of mountains.