Even for those familiar with the Korean filmmaker’s approach, Park Chan-wook often finds a way to burrow deeper below genre surfaces than you thought possible. Across films concerning vampire priests (2009’s Thirst), historically taboo sensuality (The Handmaiden), and the deep opportunity costs of violent retaliation (his Vengeance Trilogy), Park delivers expansive, exhilarating work that is vigorously existential, often powerfully erotic and perpetually essential.
Add Decision to Leave to that vaunted list, a stunning romantic mystery of sweeping panoramas, subtle-gesture performances, sumptuous location work, sly wit, dizzying narrative details and steep-drop emotions. Don’t be dismayed as Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong serve up the prototypical plot of a married cop falling for a woman who might be a killer. This is a slice of noir infused with intimate context about social composure and emotional entropy in contemporary life. It adapts the genre’s many analog pleasures into an era of digital anxiety and deploys developments with such flourish and flair that the fortissimo emotions of its finale could be definitive or debatable. Many movies co-opt the obsessive overtones of Vertigo. This is one of the very few that dares to dabble in something quite different, and dazzling, with its homage.
Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an insomniac homicide detective in Busan, South Korea, who has been in a “weekend marriage” for a decade-plus. During the week and across all hours, Hae-jun toils in the city. On weekends, he makes a long drive back to a seaside village to be with his wife, Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun).
His latest case concerns the demise of a recreational rock climber, whose Chinese widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), is noticeably nonplussed by the news of this death. Hae-jun’s go-getter partner, Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo), is certain Seo-rae is behind it. It’s always the spouse, right? But Hae-jun is a hardened veteran who recognizes criminal compulsion. Surely, this was just an accident. Maybe a suicide. No one as sophisticated and soft-handed as Seo-rae could have played a part in a murder. Any happiness Seo-rae feels is from escaping the abuse delivered by a bored civil-servant husband so brutish he burned his initials on her body. Open and shut. Certainly not bound to live forever on Hae-jun’s wall of unresolved-crime photos, right? Right?
Park Chan-wook and Jeong let this mystery unfold with a playful, purposeful disruption of visual planes and editorial rhythms, all while composer Jo Yeong-wook’s pizzicato strings pluck at the paranoia and castanets click like scorpion claws. Editor Kim Sang-bum cuts cinematographer Kim Ji-yong’s arresting images in ways that evoke Hae-jun’s barely conscious awareness as he burns a thin, small candle at both ends. Images, items and characters slingshot through time and space, existing in a state of flux similar to digital fingerprints and echoes that propel Hae-jun’s investigation and his burgeoning intimacy with Seo-rae. For a connection that never tips into anything nearly as physically explicit as moments in Park’s Thirst or The Handmaiden, the connection between Hae-jun and Seo-rae remains robustly sensual. It’s attuned to the intimacy of physical investigation, building to a moment that involves synchronized breathing between Hae-jun and Seo-rae that’s far more arousing than anything more nakedly titillating.
Decision to Leave also stands in deep contrast to the free-flowing carnage of Park Chan-wook’s past work; apart from speculation in Hae-jun’s mind’s eye, the most violent thing here is the ding of Hae-jun’s alarm to rouse him from reveries. Indeed, Hae-jun and Seo-rae’s phones are extensions of themselves, telecom tendrils to tickle each other’s ears even when they’re apart.
Have you also seen dozens of tales of criminals eager to be caught and cops eager to be outwitted? Of course, but rarely with such deep, emotional character work. Decision to Leave is always as observant as it is ostentatious about how close to criminality Hae-jun is teetering. Statistics about cultural failure and finality that Hae-jun’s wife and partner share with him slowly perforate his carefully ordered world. That Hae-jun’s complacency will give way to complicity is inevitable. He’s already been slowly testing the waters of everything he can get away with when he holds only the most tenuous connections to tradition; the disengagement from Jung-an is almost worse than any divorce could possibly be. Little does Hae-jun know he’s wading into a raging sea Seo-rae has already conquered as an immigrant to Korea who endured horrifying conditions and survived them all. Perhaps she could easily render Hae-sun among the million anonymous creatures content to swim aimlessly within those waters.
All of this doesn’t even crack the second half of Decision to Leave. Of this, nothing more will be said beyond two things: 1) Park Chan-wook essentially delivers two terrific films for the price of one and expertly assesses the opportunity costs of both. 2) What a delightful payoff to the subplot about a turtle burglary. Beautifully shot, exquisitely directed and thoughtfully written, Decision to Leave exists in that sweet spot of noir — the fermata before the fates we foretell for ourselves. It’s a monumental thriller in which you are always in masterful hands.