Director Park Chan-wook captured the world’s attention with 2016’s The Handmaiden. The film’s mix of eroticism and intrigue won him much praise from critics. Park Chan-wook, going all the way back to his much beloved Oldboy, has cleared a respectable career middle ground. His films appeal both to the arthouse crowd and general audiences.
The Handmaiden serves as Exhibit A. While the film’s1930s setting and plot involving the strenuous relations between Korea and an occupying Japan appealed to the arthouse cognoscenti, the sex-driven narrative and the plot twists—the hooks that are sure to catch general audiences—won its director widespread appeal. Reviewers and audiences swooned over The Handmaiden. Park Chan-wook achieved that most difficult and sought after Spielbergian prize of all—middlebrow success. I must confess, plot twists have never done it for me. Films that hinge on a plot twist are like magic tricks.
I am briefly wowed; but once the trick is over, I delete it from my memory and move on. The Handmaiden was fine. It was a nicely crafted piece of filmmaking with some amusing plot twists; and that is all. Nothing memorable.
Decision to Leave is evidence of a director being rewarded for the elements that won him praise in the past and his decision to double down on those elements. The film centers around an experienced detective, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), and a mysterious Chinese émigré, Seo-rae (Wei Tang). There are several factors that strongly suggest that Seo-rae murdered her husband.
As Hae-joon investigates the crime, he becomes increasingly captivated by the beautiful and seductive Seo-rae. The line between suspect and lover become blurred to the point of compromising Hae-joon’s professionalism and his marriage. Along the way, plot twist after plot twist follows each other like compartments on a moving train.
Undoubtedly, Decision to Leave is beautiful to look at. And yes, there are references to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Rear Window. The film cognoscenti will surely feel proud of themselves identifying the Hitchcockian elements as I’m sure Park Chan-wook felt in including them. But once one gets beyond the gloss, there is not much there.
The film’s quick cuts are just one step slower than any franchise action film. If seduction is at the core of Decision to Leave’s narrative, fast edit cuts make the film less sexy. Seduction is all about lingering expressions and slow reveals. Decision to Leave is the antithesis of seduction. It is hyperactive. It is ADHD in nature. Just when your brain is figuring out one plot twist, it must jump to the next one.
Toward the last third of the film, I became lost. I am not sure if this was due to the barrage of twists and turns in the plot or to the fact that I lost interest. Regardless, Park Chan-wook is exploiting the two elements that middlebrow American audiences love—sex and plot trickery. If for his next film he decides to do a film in English with Western actors, his overwhelming success is assured. That is unfortunate. The film world needs less middlebrow and more risk-taking. We await his inevitable success.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.