Through an eyeball darkly
Follow the cellphones! That’s good advice if you want to fully understand award-winning Korean director Park Chan-wook’s complex detective/love story. Good advice, but insufficient. You’ll also have to master the mothers and grandmothers and husbands and slap-happy Slappy, not to mention the flashbacks, most of which feature imagined reflections, rather than objective reality. It’s all fascinating, if at times overwhelming.
Fortunately, it’s a two-person show. At its center is Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), handsome in early middle-age, tolerating a long-distance marriage, an insomniac, troubled and obsessed by the murder cases he hasn’t solved, represented by a wall of crime photos in his city apartment.
Enter attractive, enigmatic Seo-rae (Tang Wei), suspected of killing her husband. Ethical to a fault, Hae-jun can’t resist Seo-rae, whose role has echoes of the calculating, cold-blooded femme fatale. Unlike Barbara Stanwyck’s hustler in “Double Indemnity” (1944), Seo-rae isn’t obviously evil and doesn’t try to manipulate our detective into committing a murder—or any other crime. And unlike Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, Seo-rae is likeable, if not obviously amorous. An elaborate Bento box (the scene evokes the eating-as-foreplay theme of “Tom Jones” ), presented to Seo-rae across the interrogation table as Hae-jun is about to begin questioning her, is an early sign that he has been compromised by desire. Moments later their hands nearly touch when, almost like a dance, together they clean that table. Later, Hae-jun will describe the two of them as of “the same brand.”
Maybe. Hae-jun and Seo-rae share an interest in killing and violence (though from different perspectives), and in dead bodies and what happens to them—the blood, the maggots, the bottle flies, the open eyes. “We look at things straight on,” he tells her. They also share, and bond over, language differences. He’s Korean, she’s Chinese and speaks inadequate Korean. Her use of “solitary” rather than “only” comes up more than once and suggests a kindling of intimacy. Park inventively employs the recording device on cell phones, as well as a translation app, to emphasize certain concepts and words, including “solitary,” the word the detective uses when he cooks the suspect his “only” Chinese dish.
And maybe not. Hae-jun is deeply invested in the ethics of his profession—indeed, that investment defines, drives, and haunts him. Under curious circumstances, Seo-rae has lost two husbands (who may or may not be involved in unsavory enterprises), and has been viciously beaten by Slappy, who slaps people and may be a killer, too. At the same time, Seo-rae’s version of Slappy may be suspect, and she seems to have a Kevorkian, angel-of-mercy side that the detective can’t entirely ignore. Killing is like smoking, Hae-jun says, the first one is hard, the rest easier.
The film’s title could refer to Hae-jun’s decision to leave Busan (Korea’s second largest city) for Ipo-ri (where his wife lives), a backwater village in which murder is virtually unknown and a highlight of his job is chasing down stolen snapping turtles. This shift in place divides the narrative neatly into two parts (two locales, two sidekicks, two husbands, two deaths). But escape proves evanescent for the detective, in more ways than one. Counter-intuitively, Hae-jun needs Seo-rae, not only because she’s attractive and beguiling, but because she is the physical representation of what engages him viscerally—an unresolved case. There’s a tragic quality to the relationship: Hae-jun can’t abandon his ethics sufficiently to give himself to Seo-rae, and he can’t abandon Seo-rae sufficiently to do his job as he knows it should be done. Seo-rae is Hae-jun’s Delilah.
Park, who won the award for Best Director at Cannes for “Decision to Leave,” uses imagined scenes, many of them flashbacks, to deepen the film’s aura of uncertainty. Detective Hae-jun runs through in his own mind, or relays to his sidekick, how a killing might have happened, and it’s presented as if in real-time, making the events seem as if they must have happened that way. When Hae-jun improbably carries his sidekick on his back up a sheer mountain face to reenact the crime, it’s a clue that one can’t trust all the flashbacks; they’re a type of “Rashomon” telling, sometimes with elements of humor. While on a stake-out of Seo-rae’s apartment, Hae-jun imagines sitting next to her, a palpable vision of his growing fascination. Award-winning cinematographer Ji-yong Kim’s shooting of these maybe/maybe not scenes, as well as his use of mirrors, reflections, views through glass and even from the inside of cell phones and eyeballs, enhances the sensory quality of this mystery.
The film’s ending seeks to resolve the dilemmas and contradictions, or some of them, but it’s overly dramatic and inconsistent with what we know of Seo-rae and Hae-jun; it makes sense intellectually rather than emotionally. That said, there’s a lot to like in this head-spinning, challenging, sometimes inexplicable, evocatively filmed and edited, tale of a love that struggles to “conquer all”—especially if you can follow the cell phones.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Park Hae-il, Tang Wei
Runtime: 138 minutes
Country: South Korea
Languages: Korean, Chinese; Korean subtitled in English
Other awards: one win (Best director, Cannes), four other nominations to date
Availability: In theaters nationally; available on Mubi streaming “soon”; see JustWatch here. Also check North Park Theatre for select showings.
Lead image: Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) (left) can’t resist Seo-rae (Tang Wei), whose role has echoes of the calculating, cold-blooded femme fatale.
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