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Newsletter: How Park Chan-wook's Films Chart Forbidden Desire

Decision to Leave crystallises a career-long concern for South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook: the negotiation of desire, especially of the forbidden kind.

Newsletter: How Park Chan-wook's Films Chart Forbidden Desire
Desire can be a creative and destructive force in Park Chan-wook's films.
  • Prahlad Srihari

Last Updated: 05.33 AM, Jan 19, 2023


This column was originally published as part of our newsletter Stream Of Consciousness on December 25, 2022. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


A MURDER INQUIRY is recast as a romantic one in Decision to Leave. Both endeavours are after all an attempt to get to the truth about a person by way of finding evidence as to their intentions and not letting biases colour judgment. Park Chan-wook’s latest is a masterfully composed, deeply layered and surprisingly chaste film about the desire that percolates between a married detective and a murder suspect. Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a by-the-book Busan detective investigating the seemingly accidental death of a corrupt immigration official who fell off a cliff. The dead man’s Chinese wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei) cooperates with the investigation but proves to be anything but transparent. Suspicion turns into attraction, desire fuels obsession, and desperation proves fatal.

A brief encounter with a mysterious woman leads to a deathly obsession for a detective caught in her web of intrigues. Will he suppress his desire or give in? A familiar noir premise indeed. Desire is the lifeblood of the genre, its spokes the driving force in the sleepless sleuth’s navigation of his moral bind. Decision to Leave crystallises a career-long concern for the South Korean maestro: the negotiation of desire, especially of the forbidden kind.

Desire can be a creative and destructive force. It can isolate the monomaniacal subject while also offering a towline to grasp on to. In Thirst (2009), Song Kang-ho’s vampire preacher sees his predatory instincts take over in an insatiable love affair with his friend’s wife. In The Handmaiden (2016), a Japanese heiress and a pickpocket enjoy a queer awakening while scheming to topple the Imperial patriarchy. In his English language-debut Stoker (2013), a young woman’s sexual awakening coincides with her homicidal coming of age. If Stoker was a warped mash-up of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Pyscho, Decision to Leave invites clear comparison to Vertigo and Rear Window with its study into obsessive desire and voyeuristic tendencies. Noir, romance, Hitchcock and Wong Kar-wai are put through Park’s own special brand blender.

Park, who emerged from the artistic ferment of South Korean film industry in the ‘90s, put himself on the world map with the Tarantino-endorsed Oldboy (2003). But his flair for creative violence may have eclipsed the sense of romanticism that tempers his films. Decision to Leave acts as something of a corrective in this regard. To be sure, if Park has enjoyed such a long streak, he hasn’t done it single-handedly. He has had unmistakable help from long-time screenwriting partner Jeong Seo-kyeong since 2005’s Lady Vengeance (the final part of his Vengeance Trilogy). But Jeong brings more than just a female voice to their work. A winning dynamic and a mutual appreciation of the form has allowed the two to sharpen a shorthand of sorts over the years. “Our voices are so entwined throughout that a single line might have a noun written by me and the verb by Ms Jeong,” Park said in a recent interview. Take a look at their resume: Jeong and Park could very well be the greatest yet undersung writer-director duo this century.

When asked to describe Decision to Leave, Park called it “a love story.” Only, “there’s no line that says ‘I love you’. There’s no sex. There’s one kiss, but it’s almost like saying goodbye.” Park and Jeong formulate their own love language for Hae-joon and Seo-rae. Throwing a cell phone deep into the sea is akin to saying “I love you.” The love affair begins with Hae-joon calling Seo-rae in for questioning. This scene plays out like a first date: the two enjoy a premium sushi dinner and clear the table together. The warm lighting almost makes you forget that they are in an interrogation room, not a restaurant, with other detectives watching through the one-way mirror.


OVERNIGHT SURVEILLANCE and intelligence gathering become activities of courtship: ways to get to know the other person, their habits, their mannerisms, and their likes. Hae-joon, being an insomniac, stakes out Seo-rae’s apartment at night. Just watching her — cook dinner, eat ice cream, watch K-dramas, doze off on the couch with a dying cigarette — lulls him to sleep in his car for the first time in a long while. Seo-rae, aware she is being watched, greets him the next morning. Park lures us in with games of seduction and keeps us in his grasp with the consequent swirl of warring emotions. The camera captures the limbo between desire and fulfilment in all its feverish intensity. The neoclassical compositions of Jo Yeong-wook, another long-time collaborator of Park, provide the intoxicating rush of watching two lovers, doomed though they may be, fall for each other.

Longing looks and coded conversations effect a dance of desires curtailed by duty and decorum. A dance made all the more erotic by it not being consummated on screen. What happens off screen is anybody’s guess and Park leaves it to our imagination. The only sex scenes (with Hae-joon and his wife) in the film are cold, loveless and unsexy. What we do get with Hae-joon and Seo-rae is a lot of charged foreplay. Park takes great pleasure in it, framing the two within teasing inches of each other. Watching Seo-rae apply lip balm on her lips before doing likewise on Hae-joon’s chapped lips is undeniably hotter than any sex scene this year.

The Handmaiden was full of such charged moments as well. Close-ups linger on the lacing and unlacing of bodices. Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), sucking on a lollipop during a bath, complains of a snagging tooth which her maid Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) files with a silver thimble. Sook-hee’s finger runs in and out of Hideko’s mouth in a suggestive scene which acts as a pre-cursor to the first time the two sleep together. Sookee flavours her lips with a lollipop before kissing Hideko and moving down to her body. Though we never see Hae-joon and Seo-rae do the deed in Decision to Leave, just being a witness to how their conflicted desires play out is erotic in itself. Sexual repression and artistic suggestion can make for a delightful combo.

In Thirst, the priest Sang-hyeon (Song Kang-ho) turns into a vampire and grapples with Catholic guilt over his sexual and violent transgressions. Carnal sensations he has spent his life repressing awaken on meeting a similarly repressed suburban wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin). Despite the titular allusion, Park’s next film Stoker doesn’t exactly feature a vampire. But it is a blood-drenched gothic fairy tale of sorts. Though not written by Jeong (but by Wentworth Miller of Prison Break fame), Stoker is informed by Park’s familiar concerns about violence, eroticism and the eroticism of violence. In the wake of her father’s death, teenaged India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) deals with the suspicious homecoming of her long-lost uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Suspicion, much like in Decision to Leave, leads to a strange attraction, underscored by a Philip Glass piano duet teeming with sexual tension. This musical foreplay combined with a shared propensity to homicide awakens something natural as well as unnatural in India. Symbolism can be a bit on the nose: a spider crawls up India’s leg and white flowers are splattered with blood in a coming-of-ager where sexual awakening and bloodlust are inextricably linked. Though by no means his best work, Stoker’s qualities are instructive to Park’s follow-up tale of repressed desire.

Freedom comes via sexual awakening even in The Handmaiden, which saw Park and Jeong relocate Sarah Waters’ story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) hires the pickpocket Sook-hee as a maid in Lady Hideko’s employ to defraud the Japanese noblewoman of her inheritance. Only, Sook-hee and Hideko end up falling for each other in a shared journey of self-discovery. As the two hoodwink the Count to live and love in freedom, Park and Jeong pull off their own narrative rug pulls on the viewer by changing the point of view across the film’s three parts.

The love story of Hae-joon and Seo-rae doesn’t get the happy ending that Sook-hee and Hideko’s does. Noir love stories seldom do. But watching two lonely souls enjoy a brief kinship, despite knowing the possibility of their desires being fulfilled is tenuous, and still saying ‘fatalism be damned’, is simply one of the great cinematic pleasures. For ultimately, as opposed to what Nietzsche famously wrote, we come to love the desired just as much as the desire.