Nobody is as complicated as Park Chan-wook. Far beyond the point where Theseus would have given up himself and turned to a dead end with a pile of desiccated bones, behind ‘Oldboy’ and ‘The Handmaiden’ the Korean master will coolly stroll through yet another of his flawlessly intricate mazes. pausing very occasionally – perhaps with the slightest hint of irritation – to ensure the laggards in the background can keep up. The process was meant to be maddening, but instead, as its new Cannes competition title proves, it’s almost magical how its trail of elegant, glittering clues leads us back to the blinking light. After the world-conquering success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and the small-screen dominance of Squid Game, your new sublimely accomplished Korean thriller obsession is here, and it’s Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave.
Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, who beautifully combines the classic noir archetypes of the sinner in love and the dogged chewing gum) is a top-notch police detective. The youngest officer ever to be appointed inspector in bustling Busan is handsome, respected, and happily married to a pretty, witty woman (Lee Jung-hyun). They don’t live together, however, as she works in the smaller coastal town of Ipo, a few hours’ drive away, and Hae-joon, who is in homicide, needs the vices of the big city to thrive. But even here things are slow: during the first conversation with his lanky, clumsy younger partner (Go Kyung-pyo, the subject of some deliciously hilarious background gags), Hae-joon complains that there aren’t enough murders to work on.
So when a man’s body is found at the foot of a nearby mountain, Hae-joon gets the case. That’s how he meets the man’s beautiful, enigmatic wife, Seo-rae (a captivating, chameleon Tang Wei), a Chinese-speaking geriatric nurse whose apparent disinterest in the newfound widowhood piques Hae-joon’s curiosity. He meets her and continues to monitor her apartment at night, even after her alibi has convinced him of her innocence, partly because the insomniac sufferer is only able to sleep so well. Curiosity ignites into a strangely respectful obsession in which every line of intimacy that is crossed is condoned and reciprocated.
“Decision to Leave” is essentially a love story, and it’s a deeply sexy one, although there isn’t a single sex scene and Hae-joon and Seo-rae barely touch, aside from one rummaging through the other’s pockets or smelling lotion apply to your calloused hands. Instead, their soul mate-style bond – complicated, of course, when Seo-rae’s alibi turns out not to be as solid as it first appeared – is complicated by the inherently believable natural chemistry of the two actors and the stunning choreography of certain scenes evoked, synchronizing their gestures and movements as if their bodies had always known each other.
This harmony continues through a change of location (the action eventually shifts to Ipo) and a change of hairstyle and husband for Seo-rae. But it’s already present in their first real conversation in a police interrogation room, when, after a delivered lunch of expensive, high-end sushi (much to the annoyance of Hae-jon’s partner), they wordlessly clear the table with the practiced efficiency of a long – Couple who have done it a thousand times.
It’s far from the only time the staging of a scene has more meaning than the spoken words. Kim Ji-yong’s superb cinematography (no surprise, he was also the cinematographer on Kim Jee-woon’s superb spy film The Age of Shadows) seems to find new heights of expressiveness without becoming in any way pretentious: a conversation on a stairwell remains visually interesting by using perhaps the only two new coverage angles on this hackneyed locale that exist. There are glorious overheads (torches searching forests at night) and cutting symmetries (a car parked on a beach road, sea on one side, sand on the other) and an almost insultingly cool use of reflections. TV screens and windows overlay characters on top of each other despite being in separate rooms, which creates the odd, slightly surreal panache when Hae-joon, who is set to watch Seo-rae from afar, actually appears in the room behind her.
And there are montages, accompanied by a woodwind score (by Cho Young-wuk) full of romance and intrigue, that deliver a delirium of images that would be the central climax of any other film, but here’s just a hilarity aside. Even given the age-old conundrum of providing backstories while keeping audiences engaged, Park is in inventive form. An explanatory monologue is superimposed over an otherwise bland but thoroughly exhilarating rooftop chase. Or maybe not so unrelated: It culminates in a most unusual confrontation in which Hae-joon and his prey briefly agree on what men will do – what values they will betray, what peace of mind they will sacrifice – what love will be for.
While “Decision to Leave” shares some DNA with Park’s twisted baroque play “The Handmaiden,” particularly in its incredibly bewitching female lead, it’s also stunningly modern. Smartphone (and smartwatch) technology is fast becoming an integral part of the story, and not just at a functional level of information delivery. Given the well-documented challenges the internet poses not only for directors in search of a pretty picture, but also for mystery writers who are aware that 90% of Agatha Christie plots these days end up on page one with a Google -Search would be solved, Park is able to lean into the formal and thematic cinematic potential of tech is nothing short of revealing. From the nagging delays in a text message conversation to the role audio and video plays in Park and Cheung Seokyung’s emotional corkscrew script, there’s a little kernel of depth here in the suggestion that modern tech life has immortality has fundamentally changed the way we connect, the way we remember, the way we experience love and loss.
Human perception is fallible: is Seo-rae’s dress blue or green? Human emotions are changeable: does she love him or is she just a very talented, sociopathic mimic? Compared to the lossless clarity and endless replayability of a recording – which can even be accessed here by a phone thrown into the sea – the memory is fickle, and thoughts and motivations cannot be discerned outside the locked box of your own heart. Yet when a lover’s heart is fickle, so is it, as the surprising, sad, but utterly satisfying ending to this scintillating genre work proves, it’s also the only thing worth having.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/decision-to-leave-review-park-chan-wook-1235275058/ ‘Decision to Leave’ Review: A colorful and mischievous murder mystery