Park Chan-wook’s Erotic Predecessor to Decision to Leave

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Acclaimed filmmaker Park Chan-wook is no stranger to creating distinct works that keep you on your toes in melding the brutal with the beautiful. Formerly a film critic himself, he brings a sense of awe and love for the form while also challenging himself with every new project he takes on. Whether looking back to his Grand Prix-winning film Old Boy or even the underrated Stoker, there is just so much he brings to the table with each new work that has cemented him as a one-of-a-kind visionary. Park will return to Cannes with his newest film, Decision To Leave, which was one of the most exciting announcements to come out of the festival this year. From even just the first glimpse, it looks as though the director is dipping his toe back into making an erotic thriller. The last time he did so was six years ago with the riveting The Handmaiden. Now is the perfect time to revisit just how incredible this film remains.

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Loosely inspired by the 2002 novel Fingersmith, the film takes the material and themes, and runs with them in its own mysterious direction without ever looking back. It tells the story of a con that becomes something more, spiraling into seduction and violence with a cinematic grace that is as patient as it is thrilling. Central to this are the electrifying performances from Tae Ri Kim and Min-hee Kim, whose chemistry propels the film forward with each new wrinkle in the narrative. The former plays Sook-Hee, a talented pickpocket, and the latter plays a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko.

We soon learn that Sook-Hee has been recruited by the conman Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) to assist in stealing Hideko’s money by convincing her to marry him. In the subtle yet enthralling opening sequence, we see Sook-Hee leave her life of struggle and squalor to arrive at the wealthy home that will change her life forever. A fish out of water who is uncertain about what she is walking into, it becomes clear that nothing is what it seems, as lies and lust are woven into each glorious frame the director crafts.


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The film is his most formally and narratively audacious, challenging our expectations at every turn in a manner that is thoroughly entertaining while also being a vast emotional canvas. This is a high bar to clear as his other films were never lacking for their boldness, though this moves beyond that in a manner that sneaks up on you as it all settles into a rhythm that is mesmerizing to behold. That is because the film is about desire, something it shows with all the joyous and sinister results that can come from it.

As we see the specific desires of the two women who find themselves on opposite sides of a con begin to unfold, it eschews the typical beats we are familiar with in this type of story. Instead, it creates something both oddly whimsical and deeply intense. The scene that strikes this balance the most comprehensively is where Sook-Hee is giving Hideko a bath. It begins with wide shots and goes increasingly into extreme closeups. We remain enraptured by the tension as they both speak volumes with the way that they briefly meet the others’ eyes, saying everything they need to without uttering a word. It plays out with a sense of uncertainty that stems from both the deception and the fear of growing too close to the other as it would threaten to upend everything.


Of course, upend everything it does. Without going into too much detail to preserve key revelations, the way the story turns itself on its head from part to part remains as daring as it is devastating. Each is vastly different in its perspective, keeping us constantly enthralled over a lengthy runtime that just flies by and almost feels like it all had passed in an instant. It is an experience that flaunts any preconceptions we may have about what it should be to become something profoundly unique. It is a fresh look at the erotic thriller that is delicately deconstructive in its narrative while also embracing the potential of the genre in a way most modern films feel afraid to try to do. This does create a sense of tension though in a way that is fascinating rather than fractured. It dives headfirst into the contradictions it lays out for itself, finding humor in the darkest of places before pulling the rug out from under us without a second thought. It feels both exploitative and evocative, pushing the story forward in a way that invites us to indulge in the spectacle while also empathizing with the characters.


As the two women come to form a deep bond and discover much about themselves on a winding journey to liberation, the film takes its time to fully develop every nuance. Even when they do something that at first appears shocking, you can’t help but look back in admiration at how this leap of faith would pay off later when it all lands on its feet with ease. It is all part of how The Handmaiden endures as the director’s best work. From his typically precise framing to his sense of whimsy that can quickly take a dark turn, it is a film that rewards repeat viewings as you notice the details of what becomes a rich tapestry all its own. If his newest film is anything like this one, then we are in for a real treat.

Of course, even as there is much to be excited about in Decision To Leave, his films thrive on all being different, even as they are remarkable in their own ways. The Handmaiden is his boldest vision yet, though it can’t be understated how much we should look forward to revising this statement with his future projects.


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