CINEMA REVIEW: DECISION TO LEAVE (2022)
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Jeong Seo-kyeong, Park Chan-wook
Produced by: Park Chan-wook
Main cast: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Lee Jung-hyun, Go Kyung-pyo, etc.
Cinematography Kim Ji-yong
Edited by Kim Sang-bum
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Park Chan-wook is a proper filmmaker. Like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, he embraces the artifice of the visual and aural medium crafting intelligent, thematically surprising and stylistically dazzling works of cinema. While watching his work one can see the clockwork precision of his filmic mind devising every frame, sound, camera move, cut, character action, acting nuance, being thought out expertly. In short: Park Chan-wook’s films are always an event for me and demand attention.
Chan-wook’s only Hollywood directed film was an under-rated gem of a noir thriller called Stoker (2013), after which he returned home to direct erotically charged period thriller, The Handmaiden (2016). This was a bigger-budgeted and thematically richer affair, taking a complex con-artist-twisting-plot and interweaving an explicit feminist love story. Of course, lest we forget Chan-wook’s classic early work, notably the gonzo revenger, Old Boy (2003). I re-watched it recently at the Raindance Film Festival and the furiously inventive exploitation film retains its beautifully transgressive power.
Like The Handmaiden (2016), Decision to Leave (2022) is a romance story set within a complex genre plot. While the former was a period crime film, Decision to Leave (2022) is a contemporary set police procedural with a central premise highly reminiscent of Basic Instinct (1992). Tang Wei as Song Seo-rae is suspected of killing her husband and as investigating cop, Park Hae-il as Det. Jang Hae-jun, delves deeper he finds himself more and more attracted to her. Where The Handmaiden (2016) and Basic Instinct (1992) used nudity and sexual imagery liberally, Decision to Leave (2022) is far more subtle and cerebral. The compelling romance is built on two fine lead performances, the cunning twists in the crime plot and Chan-wook’s masterful visuals with mountain, coastal and city landscapes being employed to powerful impact.
Now I must admit after watching Decision to Leave (2022) I was left slightly underwhelmed at the end from an emotional perspective. The visuals and storytelling were phenomenal, with Chan-wook and his writing partner crafting a devious series of inventive cat-and-mouse set-pieces. The suspense and doubt instilled as to whether Song Seo-rae is a murderer, despite her cast-iron alibi, is palpable. Simultaneously, the arc of the married mid-life crisis-detective, drawn to the suspect, flirting with disaster through flawed choices, creates much tension also. However, I didn’t immediately warm to the detective’s persona and wasn’t sure if I really cared. But I suspect, due to the complexity of the passion on show, a further watch will cement Chan-wook’s specific and symbolic vision.
Beneath the melding of romance, crime, mystery and action genres, I also considered the potential subtext in the screenplay. I wondered if Decision to Leave (2022) sought to explore the socio-political relationship between the nations of South Korea and China via the characters? Song Seo-rae is a Chinese migrant who came to Korea and via marriage was able to remain. An enigmatic soul she uses her wiles to survive, serenely attracting a series of men. But death follows her as closely as the male. Detective Hae-jun is drawn to her both professionally and romantically, no doubt thrilled by the danger. Yet, Chan-wook denies displaying physical consummation, and this makes the film more erotic than endless sex scenes do.
Lastly, Decision to Leave’s (2022) examination of language, both bodily and verbal, is deftly presented as a theme within the romance. The central crime of murder creates suspicion between the Korean and Chinese characters, but there’s a mutual and irresistible pull that cannot be denied. Song Seo-rae’s use of her phone translation application during her exchanges with the Detective create both a barrier and paradoxical intimacy. It’s just one of the fascinating bits of business, as well as the chainmail gauntlet used by the Detective, which elevate an already impressive script. But did Decision to Leave (2022) need to be so evasively complex and full of radiant ambiguity? The ending especially is both poetically exquisite and frustratingly cryptic. With a Park Chan-wook film, would I have it any other way?