Park Chan-wook rarely makes films that stick to traditional conventions. From his past masterpieces, such as the South Korean movies Oldboy and The Handmaiden, controlled and effective chaos along with hard-to-swallow subject matter tends to be the order of the day when it comes to his big screen creations. Which is why, his latest feature, the erotic thriller movie Decision to Leave, proves to be so surprising.
Although some exciting and unique framing devices and cinematography is used, Decision to Leave is a relatively straightforward film, that, while well-made, seems to stick out among the director’s pedigree of creatively risky past work. Instead of his typical brand of brutal subject matter and dark humour, a delicate and slow-burn crime drama reminiscent of old noir films is told through the eyes of a Busan cop with a habit for late-night stakeouts, surveillance, and a nasty case of insomnia.
Decision to Leave follows the relationship between a married detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), and a woman Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who is the prime suspect in her husband’s murder. As Hae-jun continues to investigate Seo-rae, an obsession kicks in, and soon a dynamic similar to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 drama movie Vertigo takes place with the two engaged in a psychological cat-and-mouse game turned affair.
Romantic feelings and chemistry begins to cloud Hae-jun’s judgement, and a convoluted crime and plot is slowly unravelled as the detective gets closer to Seo-rae, falling deeper and deeper into his new feelings and their bond. Decision to Leave, while less violent and visceral, is still visually stunning, like most of Park Chan-wook’s past work. It is impossible not to be enchanted by the scenery of South Korea’s cities and seas, as well as taken with the intimate close-ups of both Hae-jun and Seo-rae as the two watch each other from afar.
As a visual storyteller, Park Chan-wook is near faultless in his craft, capturing beauty as well as the two character’s complex feelings. However, when it comes to the script of Decision to Leave, things do get a bit long-winded. With a melding of genres, Decision to Leave is at its most exciting when it blends romance with classic detective movie tropes. The anticipation and payout from the first murder case involving Seo-rae’s husband is captivating as Hae-jun struggles to find the truth amid all of his personal biases.
But once the film presents a second criminal case, and focuses more on feelings of longing, grief, and Hae-jun’s incurable insomnia, the pacing of the film lags and momentum falters. As the romance movie goes on, it is also hard to ignore the lack of passion between Hae-jun and Seo-rae despite Park Hae-il and Tang Wei’s outstanding performances in their respective roles.
With the two’s relationship shown to be unavoidable and undeniable throughout the lengthy runtime of over two hours long, their convoluted affair is relatively tame, and ultimately lacking in the amount of heated glances and charged touches needed to demonstrate the pull between the two.
Separately, all the actors do a phenomenal job. Tang Wei manages to keep us intrigued with subtle character shifts and raw emotions, while Park Hae-il regularly emotes perfectly and carries his performance fully in his body language and vocal delivery. But once the stars are together in scenes, there is a sense that they are still separate entities instead of partners, and this slight lack of magnetism only becomes more evident as the script continues to go on for perhaps ten to 15 minutes too long.
Ultimately Decision to Leave is a beautiful but long and somewhat predictable watch that requires patience. It stands as one of Park Chan-wook’s safer works that will undoubtedly cause some fans to raise their eyebrows, but it still holds a delicate and intriguing atmosphere throughout its entirety. Park Hae-il and Tang Wei prove their star power, and although the film is a bit rough around the edges and not one of Park Chan-wook’s best, it is still an enjoyable time.
Decision to Leave releases in US theatres on October 14, and in UK cinemas on October 21, 2022.
Decision to Leave review
Park Chan-wook’s latest film is beautiful but feels relatively tame for what we’d expect from the acclaimed director.