A woman enters the life of an insomniac police investigator obsessed with the drudgery of detective work and presents him with an opportunity to do just that in director Park Chan-wook’s latest film, Decision to Leave. The woman, a widow, becomes an object of attraction not for any traditional reasons, but because she enables his unhealthy obsessions. It’s a twisted tale of yearning and desire, an erotic thriller in which nobody gets naked; like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love meets Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
The derivative tone aside, Park’s visual signatures remain utterly unique and rife with symbolism, even if his storytelling teeters on the edge of unintelligibility. From its opening moments, it’s difficult to decipher what exactly is happening. The plot is more confusing than enigmatic. Characters come in and go out almost unannounced, as Park’s big stylistic gimmick — putting the protagonists in the same room with each other even when they aren’t — further complicates matters.
But like it did in the hit television show Normal People, this undercuts any separation anxiety that these characters might be feeling. By always being in close proximity to each other, scenes in which they actually share intimacy — over a hastily prepared Chinese meal, and on a trip to a Buddhist temple — feel less moving than they should.
Park Hae-il plays the straight-laced cop Hae-jun, while Tang Wei stars as the femme fatale Seo-rae, a Chinese immigrant whose husband falls to his death on a climbing trip. Seo-rae becomes the prime suspect in the case for more debilitating reasons than her inability to project an appropriate level of grief at his passing. Almost immediately, Hae-jun is drawn to her mysterious aura. Their chemistry is first felt in an interrogation scene in which Park packs in more visual flair than all 30 Marvel movies combined. And he’s working not with the GDP of a small country, but with just two people, sitting across from each other, eating out of expensive bento boxes.
Decision to Leave has more in common with the filmmaker’s recent output — his English language debut Stoker, and his psychosexual period drama The Handmaiden — than the revenge-fuelled exploitation movies that he directed in the early 2000s. Along with Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon, Park helped usher in the new wave of South Korean filmmaking, which has now somehow paved the way for TV melodramas and campy YA ‘content’. But almost as an act of defiance, the three musketeers of Korean genre cinema have doubled down on their creative instincts.
Decision to Leave is Park at his most stylistically uncompromising, but that might not always work in favour of the movie. The romantic core of the story aside, the police procedural bits are alienating, as is Park’s (deliberately) disjointed narrative. Brought to life by Seo-rae’s presence — they consummate their ‘relationship’ by revealing their minds to each other, but crucially not their bodies — Hae-jun has good reason to avoid ‘solving’ the case of her husband’s suspicious death for as long as he can.
But matters are complicated when his colleagues become increasingly annoyed at his behaviour, and his wife begins to smell something fishy. The mind games intensify at around the halfway mark, with a twist that I won’t reveal here. But the plot unfolds with a clinical precision that feels at constant odds with the illicit, unplanned romance unfolding in the foreground. The filmmaking is inimitable, and yet, rendered strangely anonymous by the rote mystery.
Decision to Leave, ultimately, is a film with some rather grand ideas about mid-life crisis and male entitlement, but is undone by Park’s own directorial flourishes. He gets in the way of his own film.
Decision to Leave
Director – Park Chan-wook
Cast – Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Rating – 2.5/5