I have decided to stick around just a bit longer
(헤어질 결심: Heeojil gyeolsim)
dir: Park Chan-wook
I don’t know that Park Chan-wook is the best director out of South Korea, but he’s probably one of the most famous Korean directors outside of Korea, probably along with Bong Joon-ho (after he won his Oscar for Parasite, and for mocking all those people who can’t bring themselves to watch a subtitled film because of the pesky one-inch barrier at the bottom of the screen). After shaming half of the world to death, what has he done for me lately?
Nothing, which is why it’s up to Park Chan-wook to bring the noise. Brutalising audiences as he did with his so-called “Vengeance” trilogy, but then making a whole bunch of different kinds of films, he’s pretty much shown only that he has no interest in making the same movie endlessly. So one can’t readily pigeonhole his most recent flick easily either.
It's something of a “straight” detective mystery, but it operates on a different kind of level, in that you don’t feel like you’re watching an instalment in a detective character’s drama – you’re watching a weird and brutal drama that happens to involve a detective as one of the main characters.
The other main character happens to be the suspect in one, and then a bunch, of other murders. The detective, Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), can’t seem to get over the fact that an apparent suicide is a suicide, and cannot believe that the suspect, being the victim’s wife, Song Seo-rae, isn’t guilty.
It’s not because of the evidence, because everything, up to a point, looks exactly like it should if it was a suicide, or an accident. But the only suspect doesn’t act or speak like an innocent person. If anything she’s perpetually goading him into finding holes in her story. And the guy who died was a total piece of shit who was also a sadistic abuser.
There is something about her, something in the way she exists. She doesn’t seem to particularly miss the husband, nor does she mourn his loss or his absence. Nor does she seem to be offended at being accused of anything.
Det. Hae-jun starts to surveil her at her house, as she’s doing little more than smoke cigarettes or eat ice cream for dinner (the official dinner of champions), but it’s more than enough to entrance him. And entranced he is. Despite being married, to a passionless (to him) wife who he only sees on the weekend, seeing as she lives in Ipo, and he lives and works in Busan, in Seo-rae he finds everything that he finds lacking in other people.
And yet it doesn’t completely seem solely like sexual attraction. I couldn’t even tell if it really was sexual, though it was definitely ‘romantic’, for lack of a better term. The irony for me is that the last time I saw the actor playing the “suspect” in a movie, she played the lead in a great Ang Lee flick called Lust, Caution, which was definitely about, amongst other things, lust.
What does she want…what does any person want? She wants to be seen, by this detective. I don’t mean “seen” in that she’s an exhibitionist, I mean she wants to be seen and known for who she actually is, beyond what it means to be seen as an “attractive” woman, and a Chinese woman at that, in South Korea.
Tang Wei is the actor, and she is pretty amazing, as she was in the earlier film I mentioned. Some actors do plenty with their performance, in terms of what they actually do, what they express physically, how they express it. In this performance, what she “does” or “doesn’t” do mostly occurs offscreen. Here it’s what she doesn’t do that conveys oceans of feeling.
It's also a curious parallel to the actor’s own life, in that here she is playing a Chinese immigrant fleeing the terrors of the totalitarian state back home, having to acclimate to a different culture and language, but she still feels like, for important words, that she has to express herself in Mandarin, and have her phone translate it for the detective’s benefit, rather than imperfectly express herself in Korean. Tang Wei herself is Chinese, but is married a South Korean chap, and though she seems to speak Korean fluently, maybe she feels she can only truly be heard in her native tongue?
Unlikely, but it adds a level of resonance, one which reminded me somehow of being a counterexample to that feted Japanese film from a couple of years ago Drive My Car, which kinda tried to argue the opposite: that certain truths are so universal that it doesn’t matter what language they’re expressed in, even sign language.
No, perhaps not. This flick doesn’t argue about any deeper level of understanding between certain people, even if they click on a deep, fundamental level – they can still be unknowable.
On some levels one can almost marvel at the quirky detective stuff – maybe some of it is depicted comically, I’m not 100 per cent sure. As a detective the main character is depicted as less one of those intuitive geniuses who makes massive extrapolative leaps, and more a grinding, meticulous, fastidious chap who pursues all the details until they reveal a complete picture. Such detectives aren’t that interesting to watch, for most people, but I liked it as a little bit of a change of pace.
In parallel to the main case he’s pursuing, there’s another murderer he’s trying to locate, to no avail. In a staggeringly unprofessional step, he lets Seo-rae see his wall of clues and evidence, and she’s able to intuit where he’d be able to find the chap, because she deeply understands his motivations, both for the crime and his subsequent crimes – it’s all about love.
Come now, we are all too old and cynical to take such a thing at face value, and so is Park Chan-wook. His approach is not that love is an uplifting, transformative force that brings out the best in us and compels us to grow into better versions of ourselves.
No, not at all. Love here makes people do all sorts of terrible things, even with the best of intentions and motives. Love is the great destroyer, and the reason to destroy others, and oneself.
There’s a lot about the movie that I can’t bring myself to get into, mostly because it would detract from how well-crafted it all is, how strange and strangely intimate, and also from how downbeat the ending is. Not to compare the two, but one shouldn’t expect a raucous and nasty good time like with his last flick The Handmaiden, which had a joyful ending in alignment with its story, no matter how implausible, despite the darkness involved in depicting both the Japanese Occupation of Korea and the perversions of awful men.
This flick is far more serious, and even melancholy, because it builds to an ending that we can (eventually) see from a horrified mile away, but can do nothing to stop, just like the protagonist. I will say that the ending is demoralising and frustrating, definitely, but it feels true to these characters, and probably the most appropriate ending for this story, much as I don’t like it.
In a way, again not to compare the two films really, because they’re completely different thematically, but it feels like there are some parallels to his earlier vampire flick Thirst, in that it represents a desperately co-dependent relationship between two characters who cannot be really understood by anyone else on the planet, and can’t really continue going on as they are, although thankfully this time it’s not because of fucking Catholicism, which was the real villain in that other film (which, to be honest, I did not care for at all).
This is hardly a masterpiece, but it is still a very strong film: A curious film that is not, in the end, as convoluted as it might seem, but it’s really solid filmmaking from an absolute auteur.
8 times love will tear us apart and make us commit and cover up multiple murders, again, out of 10
“The moment you said you loved me, your love was over. The moment your love ended, my love began.” - Decision to Leave