Most of the Korean movies we go see are what you might call “popcorn movies”. (I mean, for us all movies are popcorn movies, and I think we take some perverse pleasure in chomping on big handfuls of popcorn as the host of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel is pontificating on “1962, the greatest year in the movies!” Love ya, Stephen!) But by “popcorn movies” I mean, of course, crowd-pleasers, the movies that the general public is going to enjoy, or so it is imagined when they are created. This is as distinguished from the Korean movies that generally make it over to our art houses, like Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite or Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring.
Korea has not had the complete schism between their art films and their popular films, as we have in America. Think, e.g., Kramer vs. Kramer being the #4 box office in 1980 (and would’ve been #2, except for the ten million it pulled in in December 1979) and people going “huh?” when you mention Coda or Nomadland (the “best picture” winners for the past two years).
I don’t even know where you’d put Park Chan-wook, quite frankly. He worked with Bong Joon Ho on Snowpiercer, for example, and it was his Handmaiden that actually started us on the road to seeing popcorn Korean films—even though it really isn’t one itself. I’m pretty sure his vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance) define the Korean revenge picture to this day. I’d pronounce him sui generis: He’s one of these auteurs who makes the statement he wants to make and has the skill to cross popular and critical lines.
If you wanted to, you might criticize him for sensationalist or graphicness: Oldboy is shocking, as is Handmaiden, though entirely in different ways. The latter is as sexually graphic a film as I’ve seen in the past five years. And yet, the sex and the graphicness of it, seems absolutely vital to the story and the characters in it. And Oldboy would make a Greek blush.
Out of all these, he now gives us Decision To Leave which has literally nothing of the sort. He’s back at the noir well, for sure, with plenty of nods to Hitchcock (think Vertigo) and we have the central dramatic tension between the hero and the femme fatale—which is entirely chaste.
How’s that for shocking?
I mean, it kind of is, right? And just as the graphic sexual scenes created an interesting depth to Handmaiden that went beyond titillation into intimacy, the absence of them here does the same thing.
Our hero is a detective investigating a rich man who has fallen off a cliff and died, and the obvious culprit is his much younger wife. I don’t think I need to explain the twists and turns that follow which are artfully done, but follow the traditional path of our protagonist thinking she’s guilty, finding evidence, finding exonerations and ameliorations, finding more evidence, finding out that she’s apparently lying, finding out that she’s not lying but has a checkered past, but the checkered past has a good reason, etc. etc. etc.
This is all entertaining and well done, but it’s also just window dressing for the love story. He’s obviously (and almost immediately) in love with her, even though he’s married. But not only do they never make sexual contact—actually, I’m not sure they make physical contact at all—Seo-rae, our femme fatale, dresses most modestly at all times.
I’ve noted in the past that Korean popcorn movies tend to have demure depictions of females. The bad girl in The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos, for example, wears blue jeans and a (slightly ) short shirt. It’s kind of cute, like how Rita Hayworth in Gilda is a virgin. (She doesn’t dance like a virgin!)
But we are talking about the guy who directed Handmaiden, so he’s not doing this as a sop to censors or the morality squad. And it’s actually aggressively modest: Tang Wei (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) is lovely but is she lovelier than Lee Jung-hyun (Peninsula)? As the wife of the detective, she’s certainly not less sexually accessible. In fact, while the two are separated most of the week, she insists they have sex whenever they’re together, to stay bonded.
The movie follows what you might call the “usual” twists and turns until a climactic moment at what would be the end of most noirs.
But here it’s just the beginning. This is where the comparisons to Vertigo start to really kick in, though the director claims to only unconsciously have been influenced, and I believe that, since the parallels are more in the kind of surreal quality of the proceedings, and the contentious relationship the hero and the femme fatale have in the final portion of the movie.
And the whole thing is done with any sex or seduction so deeply buried as to raise the question, what is love? Is he in love with this woman or just obsessed? Does she have any real feelings for him or is she using him? Is there any value in compromising one’s self to protect someone else, even if that someone else is just an illusion? Is the whole business of living an illusion?
OK, I’m going off the deep end a little bit there. But it’s a great variation on classic noir tropes, sort of sweet and mordant, and it made me think I needed to see it again almost right away.