Greetings again from the darkness. For the first half hour, we can’t help but think, “we’ve seen this all before.” A straight-as-an-arrow police detective falls hard for a suspect in a murder case. Sure, the familiar story line is often fun to watch, but we are initially a bit disappointed since this is the work of writer-director Park Chan-wook, the filmmaker behind OLD BOY (2003) and THE HANDMAIDEN (2016). Of course, we worried needlessly. The masterful director then begins twisting and turning characters and events in this homage to Hitchcock’s VERTIGO.
A crime thriller built upon fatalistic romanticism is the foundation of the best film noirs in history, and that is exactly how Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-Kyeong construct this story. Park Hae-il stars as Hae Jun, a married Busan police detective who suffers from insomnia and withdrawals from the cigarettes his wife (Jung Yi-seo) prohibits him to smoke. As with many detectives, Hae Jun obsesses over his unsolved cases, but things change quickly when the mangled body of a married man is found at the foot of a mountain. Did he fall? Did he jump? Was he pushed? The victim’s wife Seo-rae (a phenomenal Tang Wei) is suspected, but Hae Jun defends her as not capable.
The best love stories involve obsession, and Hae Jun becomes obsessed with Seo-rae, or is it she who becomes obsessed with him? The number of twists and turns director Park throws at us are nearly impossible to track … and we aren’t sure which are pertinent and which are distractions. The tiresome cell phone trope comes into play, only this time it plays a vital role and is not just used as a tech cop out. At times we are led to believe Seo-rae, despite being a beloved caregiver for the elderly, is the devil in disguise. Other times we aren’t sure if she is the clever one, or whether that’s Hae Jun. His “daydreams” of being in the same room and spending time with her are well played.
The script is well-written and the score works perfectly. Some of the dialogue is sharp and serious, while some carries subtle humor. My three favorites were the best ever use of “shattered”, a man introducing himself as “the next husband”, and this line: “Killing is like smoking. Only the first time is hard.” For those who enjoy noir crime thrillers with a dark romantic undertone, you’re very likely to appreciate this film from director Park Chan-wook and the mesmerizing performance by Tang Wei.
***NOTE: this is South Korea’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar.