Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 22nd, 2022
Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.
With films like The Handmaiden, Stoker and Oldboy, Korean director Park Chan-wook has long proven himself a master of the moody (or downright unsettling) mystery. In his new work, Decision to Leave, he continues in this vein while simultaneously crafting something wholly unique. Murder meets investigation meets love meets emotional drama. That may not sound like an innovative formula, but in Park’s capable hands it proves more than satisfying.
The hallmark here is in the editing, with the director’s longtime collaborator Kim Sang-beom helping Park deliver what at first is a disorienting series of cuts that propel the narrative forwards in fast skips but then circle back to interrogate what we’ve seen through different perspectives. It’s all about point of view, with the lead character, Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il, The Last Princess), often placing himself in the minds and eyes of those he follows. An insomniac constantly using eyedrops to clear his vision, he almost sees more by thinking than through his pupils. Soon he will have even more to consider.
In the middle of Hae-jun’s usual routine of cases against organized crime comes a possible suicide. A sixtysomething customs official who enjoyed mountain climbing has fallen to his death from a cliff, with nothing to suggest foul play. Nevertheless, the police call in his Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei, Hunan TV’s Ming Dynasty series) for due diligence. Through a series of interviews at the station, Hae-jun begins to suspect her. Or maybe he just wants to get close for other reasons. Still, he’s married, so better stick to business.
Except that that proves harder to manage than anticipated. And so, over the course of Decision to Leave’s 138 minutes, we watch as Hae-jun and Seo-rae engage in a delicate dance of tender flirtation that threatens to both amount to nothing and derail Hae-jun’s career. The truth of what happened to Seo-rae’s husband becomes less urgent than the sincerity of the movie’s central relationship. Who means what to whom remains in question until the very end.
Stunningly shot by Ji-yong Kim (Ashfall), the film offers frame after frame of gorgeous compositions, whether of landscapes or faces. Starring two actors blessed with the gift of understatement, the movie is, for much of its running time, an elliptical romance disguised as a metaphysical thriller, even if some plot elements interrupt the otherwise perfect flow. What more could one ask for than cinematic beauty coupled with probing meditations on identity and self? Leave? I choose to stay.