When director Park Chan-wook introduced Decision to Leave at its New York Film Festival premiere, he gave the audience three tips for viewing: don’t worry about extreme violence; don’t expect kinky sexuality; and remember, it’s okay to laugh. It’s true that by the standard of Park’s career, his latest is a relatively breezy, even zany watch.
Park Hae-il stars as Hae-jun, an almost impossibly proper detective: he carries wet wipes rather than a gun, takes stake out shifts when he can’t sleep, tells off his partner for hitting a suspect, and commutes every weekend to the seaside town of Ipo, where he cooks for and makes diligent love to his wife. He is the picture of professionalism. Until he begins to investigate the death of a local immigration office official and meets the man’s Chinese wife — the beautiful, secretive Seo-rae (Tang Wei) — who happens to be his prime suspect.
He falls for her immediately, and immediately she begins to play with these feelings, tailing him on investigations, performing for his stakeouts, inviting herself into his home and putting him to bed. He rolls over at once. After all, he’s in love.
The set-up is pure noir, the leads Bogie and Bacall. Of course she’s leading him astray; of course he will grudgingly come upon the solution. Yet this only describes maybe a tenth of what Decision to Leave is actually up to. Park and frequent collaborator Seo-kyeong Jeong’s screenplay is forever finding new ways to bring the leads closer and closer together, throttling up the eroticism without ever going full Basic Instinct. And eventually, with a late-film twist, Decision becomes an earnest, honest-to-god romance, more perversely beautiful than anything I’ve seen this year.
Park first came to prominence in the early 2000s, when his Vengeance Trilogy announced him as a boundary-pushing, genre-fluent, taste-flaunting filmmaker in the mold of a Takashi Miike. For awhile, anyway, he was one of the most thoughtfully extreme directors working, blowing past taboos — think: revenge, child-murder, incest, etc — at an alarming rate. These early films are not easy watches, full of grisly images and unsettling ideas about the ease with which justice slips into injustice, and love into abuse. His most famous film, the operatic, Cannes Grand Jury Prize-winning Oldboy, peaks with a man devouring a live octopus, holding on with his slimy teeth as the unfortunate creature violently flips its tentacles out from his face — and ends with that man cutting off his own tongue in a sick act of penance.
Decision to Leave recasts the pursuit of a suspect as a lover’s quest — even the flight from justice becomes an act of devotion.
His work trades in audience expectation, introducing one type of movie before transforming into another and then another via a series of frequently extreme twists. The cute teenage bandits of 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance make one horrible mistake, and end the film electrocuted and dismembered. 2005’s Lady Vengeance opens with a series of ultra-stylish Tarantino-aping montages that set up the story of a woman taking revenge on the man who stuck her in jail for the crime he committed. But as the film goes on, this flippant tone gives way to an increasingly sobering War on Terror-era exploration of violence as a form of communal regeneration, and its ultimate inability to rectify guilt, a transformation Park marks by gradually desaturating the frame, until by the final moments the color has entirely drained away.
In more recent years, Park has applied his mastery to more sympathetic, if no less bawdy, material. Thirst squeezes every drop of erotic potential from the vampire tale. The Handmaiden drapes the skin of a handsome historical thriller over the truly earnest love story of two women scheming their way out of a series of patriarchal prisons. Park’s pseudo-softening has drawn his particularly perverse romanticism to the surface, his melodramatic belief that love can be communicated through lies, that dismemberment can be erotic, and that pleasure should often come via pain. In his work, romance is often everything but.
The Handmaiden is all about role-play: Koreans playing Japanese, farmers playing nobles, conmen playing marks, women playing men, cynics playing naïfs, and characters playing the roles other characters want them to fill, so that everyone is always manipulating everyone else’s expectations. Until the final act, it’s hard to know where anyone stands. Decision’s mystery, such as it is, revolves on which role Seo-rae is playing at which time. Is she the battered wife, the indifferent widow, the precarious immigrant, the cunning seductress? Tang Wei opaquely layers her performance so that you believe Seo-rae even as you want to peer through her. Her motives are so plain that you begin to wonder whether there is something more intimate beneath them. Are her feelings feigned, or is she really moved? Like Hae-jun, you try and fail to get to the bottom.
It’s worth nothing that this is all very fun. After his relatively anonymous work on AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl, Park seems overjoyed by the freedom available behind the camera. When Hae-jun imagines crime scenes, Park inserts him into the frame, moving the detective from investigator to observer, even participant. He has a great time with smartphones and Apple watches, shooting characters through their screens and pivoting the plot around voice memos. The score is heavy on maracas. A foot chase ends when everyone runs out of breath. He makes collecting evidence and scattering ashes seem sexy, and actual sex duller than dirt. It’s obvious why Park’s work won him the directing prize at Cannes. He’s playing with you like a cat with a bird, or a criminal with her investigator.
For long stretches, Decision becomes a true-blue love story, told at a slant. It recasts the pursuit of a suspect as a lover’s quest — even the flight from justice becomes an act of devotion. Surveillance and misdirection become tools of seduction. Hae-jun peers into Seo-rae’s apartment, memorizes her life story, subs for her at work, cooks her dinner. And she in turn pokes and prods at his faults, his tics, his momentary failures, manipulating her own feelings as she does his, until the two are so hopelessly knotted together that only a shattering blow can force them apart. Their love has implicated them as deeply as any crime.
The film ends with one of Park’s most powerful images, a sweeping crane shot of the lovelorn Hae-jun, searching desperately for the object of his devotion. Romance, he tells us, is a mystery best left unsolved.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.