About halfway into Park Chan-wook’s new film, Decision to Leave, a woman reaches into a man’s pocket to find a stick of lip balm. The two of them are alone, visiting a temple amid a downpour. She silently removes the cap, rolls the wheel to expose the tube, and applies it onto his chapped lips. He’s shocked at first, almost reluctant, but she smears away with quick, confident strokes. Then she smiles, as if to say, There. That’s better.
It’s the sexiest scene I’ve watched this year—and I’ve seen plenty of sexy scenes in the past several months, thanks to Hollywood’s naked attempts to revive the erotic thriller, a bygone genre that dominated the box office in the 1980s and ’90s. Olivia Wilde amped up the steaminess in last month’s Don’t Worry Darling, preparing for the project by studying films such as Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. Adrian Lyne, the maestro of those titles, admirably returned to sultry filmmaking himself with Deep Water in March. Even American Gigolo made a comeback, albeit on the small screen.
Yet for all these efforts to reintroduce the form to today’s audiences, the results have been largely limp, both critically and financially. Sure, sex positivity has been a hot topic lately, mostly in comedies, but the mystifying power of sexuality that was once captured most satisfyingly by the erotic thriller has struggled to find modern footing. Simply mixing sex and suspense apparently isn’t enough to bring an entire genre back to life.
Decision to Leave might pull it off, though it may not seem like a typical erotic thriller. The story, about a South Korean detective named Hae-joon (played by Park Hae-il) falling for an enigmatic Chinese woman named Seo-rae (Lust, Caution’s Tang Wei, at the top of her game) who happens to be his prime suspect in a murder case, evokes Basic Instinct and a touch of Vertigo. But Park’s latest film takes an unconventional approach to the central lovers’ dangerous liaison. The auteur includes only one actual sex scene, which depicts mechanical lovemaking between Hae-joon and his practical wife at home.
For much of the film, Hae-joon and Seo-rae communicate in gazes, smiles, and casual gestures. And the plot reveals itself more stealthily and stylishly than in a typical thriller, leading to a denouement that left me in a daze. Eroticism, Park explained in an interview, “is often psychological,” and Decision to Leave’s brilliance is in understanding that. The film conjures the seductive—and destructive—experience of getting to know a person’s mind. It recognizes that sharing your most guarded secrets with someone else can be a far rawer form of intimacy than sharing a bed.
Park Chan-wook is, of course, no stranger to eroticism of the more explicit kind, having directed the luscious 2016 period masterpiece The Handmaiden. But with Decision to Leave, a film set squarely in our present technology-laden day, he grasps that what’s lascivious now looks and feels nothing like what titillated audiences in the past. The internet has moved us somehow toward the extreme ends of prudish and pornographic, making sex no longer all that scandalous; carnal visuals are widely available, cheaply accessed.
Instead, Park focuses on appetite—sexual, intellectual, emotional—and the tension of being kept from fulfilling it. Decision to Leave is no less knotty than his previous work, but it’s nowhere near as opulent as The Handmaiden or as violent as Oldboy. That restraint mirrors what’s happening on-screen: Hae-joon and Seo-rae are constantly controlling what they say, given their language barrier (she speaks enough Korean to get by but needs him to use “easy words”). Despite that, the two have potent feelings that cannot be expressed verbally or physically, leaving them to communicate passion in a language of their own.
Anyone who’s ever watched an erotic thriller may think they know what to expect from the duo’s dynamic. Hae-joon is a morally compromised cop, and Seo-rae is a femme fatale. But neither fits perfectly into those definitions: Hae-joon is an insomniac who hangs the photos of the grisly cases he investigates up in his home like they’re art he’s collected, and he needs, as his wife observes, “murder and violence in order to be happy.” Seo-rae works as a caretaker for the elderly, and she spends her nights alone bingeing soap operas, falling asleep on her couch as pints of ice cream melt on her kitchen counter. Watching the characters guess at each other’s intentions is exhilarating; each believes the other to be archetypal—just as we do—until a delicate trust blossoms between them. The narrative thickens as the cases pile up and new characters emerge, but the love story that makes up the film’s foundation pulses with a desire that never fades.
Park Chan-wook is a master at wringing pleasure from precision. Every moment between these characters feels loaded with meaning, shots staged to supply your eyes with metaphors meant to be picked apart. Hae-joon and Seo-rae are almost always filmed at a distance, framed via mirrors, glass panes, and computer monitors, or through the lenses of Hae-joon’s binoculars, so that you begin to yearn for them to be closer. One shot toward the end of the film, of her hand appearing to hold his figure as the scene transitions, made me catch my breath. Crucial sequences take place outdoors, atop a cliff or on a windswept beach, as if those formidable natural forces are articulating what the pair can’t.
Decision to Leave is charged, in other words, without ever being X-rated. On his stakeouts of Seo-rae’s place, Hae-joon imagines standing beside her in the room he’s peering into, inhaling the scent of her perfume. They often talk using voice memos and translation apps, the cold, robotic intonation of the technology contrasting with the emotion in their speech. And every traditionally sensual beat comes with a twist: When their hands touch, it happens because their wrists have been cuffed together. When they kiss, Seo-rae has a headlamp on that makes them appear as if their heads are aflame, one entity glowing brightly in the middle of the night.
In their heyday, the best erotic thrillers, whether they featured Michael Douglas dealing with a boiled bunny or Michael Douglas dealing with an ice-pick-wielding murderess, weren’t about sex; they were about the kind of insatiable human need to connect that can curdle into obsession. The genre reigned not only because movie stars simulated sex on-screen, but also because they combined the glamorous with the gritty, the cheesiness of horror with the stylishness of noir. And at the end of the 20th century, the idea of women exacting revenge and not containing their sexual appetites felt wildly illicit, turning these movies into must-watch material.
Decision to Leave has modernized the formula. If the erotic thrillers of the past explored the dangers of lust, Park Chan-wook explores the risks of longing. His take on the genre isn’t just sexy; it’s playful and mordant and convoluted—and it begs to be rewatched, for the electrifying performances and for every frame he composes. It’s the kind of film that, like an overpowering attraction, refuses to be ignored. The only relief comes from indulging it. There, it seems to say. That’s better.