Korean director Park Chan-wook was once the master of gonzo revenge violence but with the adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel The Handmaiden in 2016 he pivoted with flair to the elegantly designed suspense thriller. And it is in this spirit that he’s back in Cannes with this sensational black-widow noir romance, featuring a glorious leading turn from the Chinese star Tang Wei, who has bettered her iconic performance in Ang Lee’s 2007 spy drama Lust, Caution. She is effortlessly charismatic and (that overworked word) mesmeric; sexual but reserved, strong, capable, intimidatingly smart but bearing a poignant and unacknowledged emotional wound. And the intelligence and live-wire energy she brings to her relationship with the film’s leading man, Park Hae-il, is a marvel.
The tension and the intrigue, the grandstanding emotional confrontations, the ingenious use of mobile phone technology (which so often stymies modern-day thrillers), the stylish set pieces, including a fantastic rooftop chase, and the deliciously manipulative plot twists are very Hitchcockian in their way. But the style is not pastiche, which is the way that idea usually arises; this is the kind of Hitchcockian film made by someone who hasn’t necessarily seen a Hitchcock film before.
The setting is Busan where a cop called Hae-Joon is struggling with an unsolved murder case featuring a couple of known hoodlum suspects, one of whom resists arrest and gets a ferocious beating from Hae-Joon who then thoughtfully comments that this guy was not tough enough to be the villain he’s looking for. Hae-Joon is sort-of-happily married to Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun), but he’s longing for the cigarettes she won’t let him smoke and is suffering from insomnia, which means that he takes surveillance and stake-out jobs because he can’t sleep anyway. Then a puzzling new case electrifies him. The smashed body of a climber is found at the foot of a well-known climbing rock. Did he fall? Did he take his own life? Or did someone push him?
On the man’s mobile phone the police find sinister photos of a woman’s beaten and bruised body. And his beautiful wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), instantly captivates Hae-Joon with her dignity and reserve. She is a caregiver who is loved by the old people she tends to, and the Korean patriot in Hae-jun is moved by her personal story: Seo-rae came to Korea as an illegal, passionate about Korea as the homeland of her grandfather who was a soldier in the nation’s defence against Japan in the 1930s. Seo-rae has an alibi for the time of death, but as the circumstantial evidence mounts against her, Hae-Joon begins to fall deeply in love with this woman, who appears also to be falling for him, her protector.
Is Hae-Joon going to cover up for Seo-rae? Is she all that she appears to be? Well, audiences might think they broadly know the answers to both those questions, but the script by Park and Chung Seo-Kyung keeps you off-balance at every turn, periodically hitting you with new characters and fresh developments that you have to wait to understand. But each new scene had me propped further forward on my seat – further still for the second and then the third act – and Cho Young-Wuk’s musical score forthrightly ratchets up the fear. And in every corner of the detective’s life he finds a variation on a single question: at what point do you decide your marriage isn’t working? When do you know that you are in love? What will trigger the decision to leave? It’s a gorgeously and grippingly made picture and Tang Wei is magnificent.
• Decision to Leave screened at the Cannes film festival and is released on 21 October in cinemas.