It’s been a while since Park Chan-wook’s last feature length film. Since The Handmaiden in 2016, he’s done some television and short film work, so the industry was well and truly ready for another big screen event from one of South Korea’s hardest hitting directors. KOFFIA hosted screenings of Decision to Leave in some Australian cities back in September, but Madman has engineered a wider release for the film so now more folks have a chance to see what images and ideas director Park is going to sear into the minds of the viewing audience once again.
For context, this reviewer is a Park Chan-wook neophyte and unlikely to ever become a full convert. Joint Security Area was a revelation, but Old Boy failed to draw me further into the fold. While an incredible and quirky piece of cinema, the unfolding of that film’s mystery and its harrowing conclusion left me cold. Reading up on the likes of Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Thirst left me thinking director Park’s work was just not my cup of tea overall. There’s only so much time I can spend in such thematically and viscerally dark territory, regardless of the mastery of movie craft bringing it to life and gruesome death.
Decision to Leave however, sounded intriguing. A murder mystery cat-and-mouse drama and apparently, even though there’s death and nihilism, there’s also restraint. It’s true. Everyone’s heart stays on the inside. There is some death, and some blood even, but it’s not gory. Horrible moments occur, but they are cut around. Plus, all the oddball side characters and mesmerising shot selection and composition that Park Chan-wook is known for are here in full force.
With that said, it’s still a film that never allows the audience to rest easy. A man has tumbled to his death from a rocky outcropping, and his significantly younger Chinese wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is not acting as is typically expected of a grieving widow. Dedicated police detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is intrigued by this young lady and conducts a thorough interrogation and surveillance process. The way these scenes are shot and acted create an unsettling dissonance. They somehow feel voyeuristic without being exploitative and that Seo-rae doesn’t seem to mind the level of scrutiny she is under is discomfiting. Actions and words traded between these two are open to interpretation and the dance between investigator and person of interest feels flirtatious. Perhaps best described as a detective noir story wrapped around a rom-com plot minus most of the comedy, it’s quietly messed up and totally riveting. An interrogation room meal practically becomes a dinner date.
Through the long and twisting trail to the end, with many a detour on the way, these two characters are the heart of the whole journey. Tang Wei and Park Hae-il make a dynamite two-hander with a pair of calculated and expressive performances that never go over the top. The questions surrounding Seo-rae make her the more complex role to play and Tang Wei does a fantastic job conveying the nuances of the character needed for the story to work. Supporting roles, such as Hae-jun’s wife (Lee Jung-hyun) and various police sidekicks are just that — support. They are there to provide extra comedic flavour or dramatic colour, but no one is stealing a scene from these two.
The compelling acting from the leads is made even more captivating by how it is filmed. Hae-jun’s probing is presented such that it makes the audience feel unsure of what is really going on. Rarely is a scene about just one thing. Parts of the investigation are intercut, voiceover narration from a different location will often accompany what is shown on screen and a character will sometimes appear in a place they are not physically present to give an interpretation of what is happening. There’s some amazing camerawork too. Shots looking out from inside a screen or an eyeball, plenty of mirrors and reflections, and on one memorable occasion, two people that appear to be the same distance from the camera, yet only one them is in focus at a time. Much as Hae-jun is drawn to discover the truth about Seo-rae, the audience is hooked into the movie, wondering if the hints of more going on beneath the surface are simply the product of an over-inquiring mind.
The presentation flows smoothly from shot to shot, only ever jarring for purposeful dramatic effect, but it’s still a lot to follow for more than two hours. Complexity decreases later in the film, but sustained attention is required throughout to follow the subtlety and details to the end. Some threads seemed unresolved, but whether intended or not, this felt in keeping with the emotional tenor of the story so it was by no means a deal breaker.
Special mention is warranted for the way mobile phones are fully integrated into the plot. Mystery and thriller stories often have to work around the presence of these devices to seem plausible, but Decision to Leave puts the capabilities of these computers in everyone’s pockets to excellent use in moving the story along. It still can’t manage to make sending and receiving text messages thrilling for long though.
A classical score is the ideal match for the expertly constructed presentation and tone on display in Decision to Leave. Without shocking violence to overwhelm, the tragedy and disquiet permeating the film are allowed to swirl away throughout the running time. It’s hard not to gaze intently at everything transpiring on screen, which is its own kind of way to get a film to stick in the memory. With wider appeal and a wider release, this is a cinematic comeback for Park Chan-wook that stands to garner him wider appreciation. This review is a case in point.