Cannes: Park Chan-wook’s crime thriller may not be as opulent as The Handmaiden, but its wicked romance runs just as deep.
Here’s a sentence I never expected: The most romantic movie of the year (so far) is a police case. On the other hand, I wasn’t aware that “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook – whose operatic revenge melodramas have given way to a series of ravishingly baroque Hitchcock love stories about the various “perversities” that could bind two wayward souls – is a detective thriller. If so, the heartbreaking potential of the Korean auteur filmmaker’s new detective saga would have been as obvious as the identity of his killer.
So it’s a good thing that Decision to Leave isn’t a crime thriller – as you can tell by the pathetic efforts its protagonist makes to solve his latest case. In fact, Park’s fun, playful, and increasingly poignant crime thriller is less interested in what Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) knows about his suspect than in how he feels about her.
By the same token, widowed janitor Seo-rae (played with deliciously uncertain intent by Chinese Lust, Caution star Tang Wei) seems less troubled by the idea of handsome detective Hae-joon finding evidence that puts her in the implicate her late husband’s death as she is frightened that he stops looking for it. Instead of mourning the much older man who took advantage of her vulnerability as an immigrant and tattooed his initials into her flesh (before “tumbling” from the top of a strange mountain that holds personal significance to his wife’s family), the stalwart Seo retaliates -rae the married in return the detective’s infatuation with her own.
With the subtlety of a secretly reciprocated crush, she dreads the day when Hae-joon will stop showering her with premium sushi boxes during her flirtatious interrogations or pegging out her Busan apartment on the nights he spends in the hilly suburbs Ipo, who is sleeping in bed with the pretty woman whom he no longer wants to touch, should be at home. Some of the people who live there probably can’t stand the depressing gray cloud cover that descends over the city each morning; others may be at peace only when their hearts are shrouded in mist.
And so the stage is set for Park to enact a psychologically complex process about a proud detective brought to life by a crime he doesn’t want to solve and a rootless murder suspect who has mastered the art of putting things behind him to let. What begins as a rather open-ended case, however, soon evolves into something much richer as Park sets the murders (plural!) in a gripping investigation into a mystery no police department could ever hope to solve: how does a romance survive between two people, whose only hope for a future together depends on leaving the past unresolved?
It’s a mystery that Park unpacks with uncharacteristically reticent, if only because its eventual payoff — a sinking realization rather than the sort of sudden bombshell that often exploded at the end of his earlier films — requires these characters to be firmly rooted in the real remain anchored in the world where their adult yearnings might be met with adult consequences. On the other hand, calling Decision to Leave a “slimmed down” Park-Chan wook film just because it doesn’t exude the same virtuosity as “Lady Vengeance” or “The Handmaiden” is like labeling “Ambulance” a stripped down one name movie. Down Michael Bay movie just because there’s no scene where Mark Wahlberg fights a robotic dinosaur: It’s true enough in context, but still misleading.
Replacing his usual cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon with A Bittersweet Life cinematographer Kim Ji-yong and watering down the richness of his melodramas with the more subdued textures of a true crime story (albeit an entirely fictional one), Park has for the first time since ” Joint Security Area” from 2000 made a film that often gives the impression that it was made by someone else. The illicit chemistry that oozes between Hae-joon and Seo-rae (and the actors who play them) seems like one of the few freebies that wasn’t, as Park’s pitch-black sense of humor bleeds through the largely colorless interrogation space sets , in which much of the first half of the story takes place. The camerawork is never sloppy and the production design is never flat – Ryu Seong-hie’s subtle flexing creates an endless ocean of detail, and the wallpaper alone in Seo-rae’s apartment evokes a choppy sea in search of calm – but “Decision to Leave ‘ is seldom the case spectacular as Park’s fans have come to expect.
It’s just as precise, however, even if the film’s intricacies are turned down to a slightly lower volume than in the past. “Decision to Leave” still features the occasional sliding dolly shot and God’s-eye view. A rooftop chase even relies on a flying device to illustrate the scale of Hae-joon’s struggle to keep his feet on the ground. But the brunt of Park’s clockwork finesse is articulated through editing, blocking, and his ability to tease lush details out of functional setups that most filmmakers would leave to the script.
Just as Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong’s script takes full advantage of Seo-rae’s foreignness, bisecting the character between her Korean heritage and Chinese birth, the film’s interview scenes isolate dialogue from the bodies to the point of what the characters are talking about isn’t is more the same than what they really say. This is hardly the first time someone has portrayed witness interviews as an act of seduction, but Decision to Leave is a far cry from Basic Instinct.
The potential of sex doesn’t move the needle for a business detective as dignified as Hae-joon; what Park creates here is the feeling of two unhappy people creeping into each other’s minds like a soft whisper that could help them fall asleep at night. Their unfinished but increasingly transparent affair builds on the special bliss that follows that first kiss at the end of a courtship, when two people who like each other can finally tell each other about all the times they’ve wished for so much tell each other.
And then it gets complicated. Mostly because Hae-joon and Seo-rae’s shared fantasy gives way to cold reality, but also because no crime story should ever rely so much on iPhones, Apple Watches, and the other ways our personal devices use our deepest reveal secrets; In its own way, Decision to Leave is even more dependent on Apple products than the short Park, famously filmed on an iPhone in 2011. The director always finds a number of clever new ways to incorporate technology into his narrative tension (and even make a salient point or two about the different types of evidence people leave behind), but the fear that Hae-joon and Seo -rae holds together even – and especially – in its absence is so pure and timeless that I often found myself wishing Park had done more to treat it that way. A desire that, at least at first glance, could stem from a third act that seems a little more complicated than it needs to be.
On the other hand, “Decision to Leave” can evoke such unexpected great emotions in its final moments only because of the complications Park throws at its characters along the way, sinking into Hae-joon and Seo-rae with the same visible weight , which a wave of ocean water saturates into the dry sand it finds on land. If Decision to Leave initially seems to explore how their feelings for each other are able to survive when they are so unresolved, Flood paints a different picture – one that suggests there is no other way for them to stay alive . Love can last a lifetime, but longing never dies.
Decision to Leave premiered in competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. MUBI will bring it to theaters this fall.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/decision-to-leave-review-park-chan-wook-1234727459/ Decision to Leave Review: A thrillingly romantic police procedural