Decision to Leave
A seductive, stunningly shot noir murder-mystery and romantic thriller, Park Chan-wook's latest is one of the South Korean filmmaker's absolute best.
October 20, 2022
When it's claimed that Decision to Leave's Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, Heaven: To the Land of Happiness) needs "murder and violence in order to be happy", it's easy to wonder if that statement similarly applies to Park Chan-wook, this stunning South Korean thriller's filmmaker. The director of Oldboy, Thirst, Stoker and The Handmaiden doesn't, surely. Still, his exceptional body of on-screen work glows when either fills its frames — which, in a career that also spans Joint Security Area, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Lady Vengeance and English-language TV miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, among other titles, is often. To be more accurate, perhaps Park needs to survey the grey areas that loiter around death and brutality, and surround love, lust, loss, and all matters of the brain, body and heart that bind humans together, to find cinematic fulfilment. Certainly, audiences should be glad if/that he does. In Decision to Leave, exploring such obsessions, and the entire notions of longing and obsession, brings a staggering, sinuously layered and seductively gorgeous movie to fruition — a film to obsess over if ever there was one.
In this year's deserved Cannes Film Festival Best Director-winner, reserved insomniac Hae-joon is fixated from the outset, too: with his police job in Busan, where he works Monday–Friday before returning to Ipo on weekends to his wife (Lee Jung-hyun, Peninsula). That all-consuming focus sees his weekday walls plastered with grim photos from cases, and haunts the time he's meant to be spending — and having sex — with said spouse. Nonetheless, the latest dead body thrust his way isn't supposed to amplify his obsession. A businessman and experienced climber is found at the base of a mountain, and to most other cops the answer would be simple. It is to his offsider Soo-wan (Go Kyung-Pyo, Private Lives), but Hae-joon's interest is piqued when the deceased's enigmatic Chinese widow, the cool, calm but also bruised and scratched Seo-rae (Tang Wei, The Whistleblower), is brought in for questioning amid apologising for her imperfect Korean-language skills.
In the precinct interrogation room, the detective and his potential suspect share a sushi dinner — and, in the lingering looks gazed each other's way even at this early stage, this may as well be a twisted first date. Hae-joon then surveils Seo-rae, including at her work caring for the elderly, which also provides her alibi. He keeps watching her at home, where her evenings involve television and ice cream. In stirring scenes of bravura and beauty, he envisages himself with her in the process, longing for the illusion he's building in his sleep-deprived mind. As for Seo-rae, she keeps stoking their chemistry, especially when she's somehow being both direct and evasive with her responses to his queries. She knows how small gestures leave an imprint, and she also knows when she and Hae-joon are both desperately hooked on each other.
Every intelligently written (by Park and frequent co-scribe Chung Seo-kyung), evocatively shot (by cinematographer Kim Ji-Yong, Ashfall) moment in Decision to Leave is crucial; the film is made so meticulously, with a precision its protagonist would instantly admire, that cutting out even a second is unthinkable. Equally, every scene speaks volumes about this spellbinding movie — but here's three that help convey its simmering potency. In one, Hae-joon ascends up the victim's last cliff by rope, tied to Soo-wan, Busan looming in the background. In another, detailed blue-green wallpaper filled with mountains surrounds Seo-rae. And in yet another, she reaches into Hae-joon's pocket to grab his lip balm, then applies it to his mouth. Perspective is everything in this feature, Park stresses. Minutiae is everything, too. Intimacy is more than everything, actually, in a picture that's also grippingly, electrifying sensual.
A police detective drawn to a possible murderer, a woman unable to let the married subject of her own infatuation go: if Decision to Leave was made in English in the 80s, it'd star Michael Douglas. With its tumbling fall, rock faces, thin line between observation and desire, midway twists, and mix of romance and noir, if it had been crafted even earlier back, it'd be an Alfred Hitchcock film. Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction or Vertigo but South Korean, Park's pining, aching new jewel isn't, though. Exquisitely intricate aesthetically, emotionally, psychologically and thematically, it's one of the director's absolute best. He's never needed a hammer or live octopus to make a splash, either, even if it worked so strikingly with Oldboy nearly two decades ago; here, for example, a literal fish-eye lens is astounding.
With every breathtaking visual composition and choice, including against cliffs and seas aplenty, Park keeps besting and challenging himself, and also utterly wowing his viewers. Already picked as South Korea's entry for the Best International Feature Film award at 2023's Oscars — a gong the country last won in 2020 with Parasite — Decision to Leave is as spectacular as it is sophisticated. It's an ambitious sight to behold, no matter which stylistic tricks it's pulling and deep-seated secrets it's spilling in tandem — and also as tender as it is melancholy, a swirling, yearning mood that the use of Jung Hoon Hee's 'Mist' on the soundtrack only cements. The film's core duo is deployed just as devastatingly well, so much so that it's impossible to imagine any other actors inhabiting the parts. Both Park Hae-il and Tang Wei have dazzled elsewhere, him in Bong Joon Ho's Memories of Murder and The Host, her in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, but they're as sublime as actors can be as wearied, troubled souls bouncing towards and repelling away from each other like revolving magnets.
Formidable, revelatory and bold, too, are Decision to Leave's versions of two noir staples: complicated cops and femme fatales. That duo is virtually synonymous with the genre, so much so that Park wants viewers to believe that they already know all they need about Hae-joon and Seo-rae going in — only to keep unpacking them, their motivations and their feelings, as the pair unpack each other. How exhilarating, intoxicating and all-consuming that experience is, for the movie's characters and for its audience. How powerfully it ripples and resonates. How phenomenal an addition to South Korea's national filmography, and to Park's, Decision to Leave proves. Deciding that you never want it to leave your memory is a given.