An insomniac Korean detective and an enigmatic widow dance around each other in Park Chan-wook’s stately and ridiculously elegant thriller. For a film with so few moving parts, it asks a lot of its audience: suddenly changing locations and timelines with minimal signposting and throwing in new characters as if they’ve been on-screen the entire time. It all adds to the seductive fug of mystery, if you can keep your wits about you.
What it requires most of all is patience: this is not the visceral Park of the Vengeance Trilogy and Decision to Leave doesn’t boast The Handmaiden’s pacy intricacies. The plot reads like a Hollywood erotic thriller from the early ’90s – a Shattered or Basic Instinct – with unhappily married Busan detective, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), and alluring Chinese murder suspect, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), falling into one of those trysts that seems likely to end either in bed or with a knife in the back.
But as the film’s dour English title might suggest, Park isn’t here for the cheap thrills or wild twists. And for all its half-repressed sensuality, there’s no sex to speak of – with or without ice axes. Instead, he casts a subtle romantic spell in the first act that has you seduced by the last.
Seo-rae’s possessive husband, a seasoned rock climber, has been found dead at the foot of one of Busan’s rock formations after a fall. Hae-joon suspects foul play and sets about checking Seo-rae’s alibi as a carer for the elderly. Soon, the pair are in an interrogation room sharing sushi and static. Is she a killer or an innocent? it’s the question that hangs, pregnantly, over the film. Sticking you in the shoes of its tired and jaded cop – and at times, using cinematic trickery to place him voyeuristically into the life of his suspect – Park keeps you wondering. As the cop’s long-suffering wife mildly notes: ‘You suspect a lot of innocent people, honey.’
Park Chan-wook’s stately, elegant thriller asks you to keep your wits about you
Lust, Caution actress Wei is magnetic as the would-be killer who uses her patchy Korean as an additional smokescreen to manoeuvre behind. She ties the detective in knots, a shapeshifter whose true nature is beguilingly unclear.
It’s all beautifully shot, with a gliding camera that will suddenly pans in on its characters as if searching their faces for clues. Eyes are a recurring motif here – this is a film partly about looking and about seeing what we want to see, rather than what’s there – and one shot even peers up at Seo-rae and Hae-joon through the eyeball of a fish on a market stall.
Fishcam is just one tool in Park’s arsenal that sees this rival The Handmaiden as the most visually arresting film he’s made. It's his most romantic, too.
In UK cinemas Oct 21.