As Seo-rae, a woman curiously unmoved by the sudden death of her husband in Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, Tang Wei gives what Robert Koehler, writing for Cinema Scope, calls “the best single performance in any of Park’s movies.” That’s a notable claim, given that Park has worked with Song Kang Ho (Thirst), Nicole Kidman (Stoker), and Kim Minhee (The Handmaiden). With Starring Tang Wei, a five-film series opening on Friday and running through November 19, New York’s Metrograph spotlights the actress who first broke through internationally in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007).
Tang had studied directing in Beijing and appeared in a handful of Chinese television dramas when Lee selected her from a swarm of more than ten thousand actresses. “As soon as she walked in, I had the sense that this was her story,” Lee told the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. Tang plays a honey trap, luring in an official (Tony Leung) from the puppet government Japan has set up in Shanghai in the 1940s. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw declared that Lee “has made a tremendous discovery. Fiercely intelligent and hauntingly beautiful, [Tang] gives a passionate, courageous performance.”
The winner of the Golden Lion in Venice, Lust, Caution “conjures not just ’40s Shanghai but ’40s Hollywood, summoning the ghosts of film noirs and wartime romantic melodramas,” wrote Dennis Lim in the New York Times. But Chinese authorities were put off by the explicitness of the acrobatic sex scenes and ordered cuts—and a media blackout on Tang. She disappeared from the papers, her endorsements were shut down, and she lost a role in a film to be directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang.
Nevertheless, she persisted, returning to the big screen in Crossing Hennessy (2010), Ivy Ho’s Hong Kong remake of Joan Micklin Silver’s Crossing Delancey (1988), and in Late Autumn (2010), a drama directed by her future husband, Kim Tae-yong. The Metrograph series skips ahead, though, to 2015, when Tang appeared as a networking engineer in Michael Mann’s Blackhat and as an accountant in Johnnie To’s Office. Costarring Sylvia Chang, who wrote the adaptation of her 2008 play Design for Living,Office is “one of the most original and imaginative musicals of the last decade,” wrote Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. In Variety,Justin Chang noted that Tang “registers strongly as a workaholic whose personal and professional lives are continually spinning out of control.”
Tang and Chang worked together again in Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (2018), in which Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) returns to Kaili to attend his father’s funeral and search for his lost love, Wan Qiwen (Tang). She “appears to him, to us, as the spectral figment of a fading unconscious,” writes Blake Williams in Cinema Scope. “By car and by foot, Luo follows her, much to her concern, and then loses her, much to his recurrent perplexion. Unable to grab onto anything solid in the present, he dips into his memories with her, flashing back to their days of being wild (circa the turn of the millennium), when her materiality was less unstable.”
Talking to Jordan Cronk in the Metrograph Journal, Bi recalls the final day of shooting, when he found Tang sitting alone “in the revolving room that you see near the end of the film. She was unwilling to leave. This was a shot that required great teamwork; it was achieved in-camera, with no trick editing. The filmmaking process, and this scene in particular, was like a dream to us. I think Tang Wei knew that when she left the room she would no longer be Wan Qiwen. That was a very touching moment to me. I couldn’t distinguish between what was real and what was a dream.”
Reality is nearly as elusive in Decision to Leave. “A heady, baroque mystery infused with the kind of old-fashioned romantic fatalism that makes noir-darkened hearts flutter, it is a story of impossible love,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, “though even a determined admirer may wonder if it’s also impossible to get a handle on this sly, ingeniously slippery movie.” Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is falling for Tang’s Seo-rae, initially his prime suspect, and she may or may not be falling for him.
Decision to Leave is “a film that, much like its characters, sets aside reason and prioritizes sensation, diving into all the nonsensical ways that love and hate overlap,” writes Juan Barquin at Reverse Shot. “Its sensuality isn’t built on sex, or even any explicit eroticism, but in how it constantly keeps any fulfillment that Hae-joon and Seo-rae might long for just outside their reach.” At the Ringer, Adam Nayman finds that Tang “has one of those faces that magnetizes the camera, and her performance suggests a woman who knows her behavior is being scrutinized; with every furtive, seductive gesture, it’s as if she’s daring the cop—and the audience—to see something suspicious.”
Writing for Film Comment,Imogen Sara Smith observes that Tang is “so subtly expressive that she is convincing one moment as a manipulative, remorseless serial killer and the next as a kind caregiver who has bad luck with men. The more we learn about Seo-rae, the more ambiguous she becomes.” Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri sees her as “outwardly obsequious, but playful underneath. Fragility and resolve dance across her face. She seems capable of both intense tenderness and intense cruelty. There isn’t much chemistry between her and Hae-joon, but maybe there doesn’t need to be. Watching the movie, it’s hard not to become a little captivated with her ourselves.”
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