Park Chan-wook is phenomenal. I missed the clanging of erotic balls in the cinema, enjoyed in a single intensive sitting some time later, was too young to be scarred by hammers and memory loss. I wanted to face a Park in theatre.
Of course I was buzzing at the opportunity to catch the previews of Decision to Leave, Park’s latest work! The film stars Lust, Caution’s (that controversial epic erotic thriller by Ang Lee that I love a lot), Tang Wei in her most nuanced and commanding role. Opposite the charismatic Park Hae-il, known to me for his ominous turn in Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho, 2003), upon the reveal of the cast I was already excited.
The plot is as follows; a man’s death in the mountains puzzles a weary Busan detective and meeting the victim’s timid Chinese widow leaves more questions. Determined to solve the crime, deemed an accident by others, his growing obsession is made all the messier by his developing feelings for the wife he has pinned as his main suspect.
The turnout was fabulous that night; a bunch of people geared up for one of South Korea’s most macabre, masterful and shocking filmmakers. There was no doubt that the room was (pleasantly) filled with film lover’s, all one can ask for when the light of the silver screen pouring upon you is from none other than Park.
It was odd leaving the cinema, however.
Shock of all shocks; Park kept it classy. But as erotic thrillers go, this is on the cleaner side. Not gonna lie, we (i.e. my friend and me – my sister kept her head this time) were a little disappointed by the lack of freakiness. But maybe I have strayed too far from my Austen-esque roots, lost sight of the utter bliss of watching two beings transfixed in chasteness. It’s all about that longing. And chapstick.
Good thing I remember that. Besides the lack of skin, I wondered what left me so suspiciously reserved about my feelings towards Decision to Leave; by no means was it a bad film. In fact, I found it to be one of the strongest of the year. Ultimately I knew just what it was, thinking hard as I did. I’m unaccustomed to change.
Park’s name almost ruined the film for me. Yet not in the way I expected more from Spike Lee with Da 5 Bloods or smarter from Quentin Tarantino with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or even warmer from Pedro Almodóvar with Parallel Mothers; this harsh perception of filmmaker against their bodies of work is to be expected. Park hadn’t made a bad film, or a disappointing film; simply something different. As a storyteller he decided to strip away his usual excess of depravity to get to the very heart of his story. That explains why even (terribly two weeks later… jeez) I can’t find much to be negative about.
Knowing nods to classic Hollywood noir, Park’s style is still unmistakable. Rich colour palettes, this time against blue hues, enhancing the foggy landscapes of Ipo, the glamourous teal costumes of Wei’s, the night-time investigations through the city, the dizzying heights of the perilous mountains (my nightmare fuel), the unsettling excursions into nature. The tone, with its 1970’s spy thriller style, push ins that recall Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, apartments decked in darker tones, splashes of orange in comparison the clinical and bright, modern rooms I have grown used to seeing in mainstream television dramas, there is something both modern and explicitly archaic in Park’s execution.
Microscopic close-ups are as erotic as they are intrusive. A cadavers eye crawling with bugs, the tender touch of the detective and the widow in a shot that calls to mind the most intimate scenes in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover (1992). The two extremes of the detective’s world, those very things that inspire such passion in him; a stark contrast to his safe, seemingly idyllic marriage often shot in mids. He is distanced from that world. But work and the widow trap his meticulous gaze. This is highlighted even more in a switch of scene half-way through the runtime. It’s jarring at first. The damp, foggy town of Ipo, sleepy though it is dominated by the Nuclear Power plant that functions as the toxic heart of the community juxtaposed to the bustling city Busan, corrupted by crime and murder, sapped of life.
The sweeping tracking shots, the pans beautifully choreographed and hypnotic, most of all in the ritualistic intensity of the twilight ocean scene – the suffocating waves ever present and volatile, a thematic dream - in the films finale. Some of the technical visual precision is exactly what distracted me at first. I had no criticism of just how smooth Decision to Leave looked. Park’s use of dead space in the latter half of the film, the high contrast and shadows in snowy night scenes is so visually rich. There are layers. I would love to break down his use of colour throughout the story, being such an integral part to his previous films, I was palpably aware of it.
The romance is so gentle despite its insidious origins. A break from action, an old temple and the blessing bells, the merge of old and new; the detective and his suspect take shelter in this old world from the rain. The tropes are all there too. The innocent shared umbrella, glances, the hand cream… the chapstick! Better still, how it becomes integral to the plot. Park proves he can do a whole lot more without stripping his characters and throwing them into raunchy decadence. Their solace in one another, specifically in this scene, takes them out of both worlds. Under the watchful eye of the spiritual entity the temple houses, they may not get up to much, but it feels like the one place they can be, where past and present have no place.
Poor Park Chan-wook, stretching his storytelling chops as I bemoaned the lack of nude. Where was there even room for all this shock sauce, anyway? If I had been smart before, I would have cleared my mind a little; embraced the experience of Park onscreen and recalled his ability to do so much more intimacy when his characters do not a lot. It’s far rawer. He can show a lot less and tell far more; he is a man full of nuance, more so than he is given credit for.
Both stifling and vacuous, the harrowing charm of this mystery thriller lies beyond even the ‘romance’, creeps about morality, teases trauma; its Park’s bleak sense of humour at all of this. It’s biting in commentary. Layers of themes and ideas that perfectly weave into the narrative of deception, murder and intrigue; Decision to Leave is clever and sexy, utterly lethal. I’ve adjusted the bar for Park. I can proudly hold this up as an example of his cinematic mastery.