Decision to Leave: the danger keeps spiralling in this tense tale of obsession

From its slam-bang opening scenes to its tragic finale, Park Chanwook’s latest film, a romantic crime procedural, seamlessly strings together complex yet high-impact images, its ultra-charismatic leads entwined in a rhapsody of uncertainties.

13 October 2022

By Tony Rayns

Park Hae-il and Tang Wei as Haejoon and Seorae in Decision to Leave (2022)
Sight and Sound

Park Chanwook shot Decision to Leave in late 2020, on the rebound from his regrettable le Carré mini-series The Little Drummer Girl (2018), and was finally able to premiere it in Cannes this year – where it won him the Best Director prize. Probably a fitting reward, since it’s hard to imagine that any other title in competition was more insistently directed. With surprisingly little plot to sustain a 138-minute film, Park and his cinematographer Kim Jiyong devote much of their energy to constructing high-impact and complex images from start to finish. The tale of an insomniac, married cop falling hard for a seeming femme fatale is not so much told in a narrative sense as elaborated through a lengthy suite of quick-fire scenes and artfully designed imagery; precise meanings and significations remain deliberately elusive until the tragic ending. Anyone left hankering for Park’s time-tested ‘cinema of cruelty’ traits must make do with shots like a close-up of ants crawling over the face and eyeballs of a corpse.

There’s a wearying sense of storytelling drift in the final third, the “13 Months Later” chapter set in the seaside town of Ipo, but the strategy mostly works fine. The film’s slam-bang opening scenes introduce Haejoon (Park Haeil) as a big-city cop – he works in the huge port-cum-resort Busan – with a frequently absent wife, a drolly immature assistant and too much time on his hands. Just as he’s complaining about the dearth of local homicides to solve, a male corpse shows up in the mountains near the city: apparently a climbing accident, but the man’s Chinese-born wife Seorae (Tang Wei) seems curiously unmoved, which makes her a suspect. As soon as this exposition is out of the way, Park shunts most of the procedural questions to one side – a subplot about the arrest of a local gangster is resolved in passing halfway through the film – to concentrate instead on the dance of ambiguities between Haejoon and Seorae, a kind of rhapsody of uncertainties.

This is new territory for Park, widely known for strongly motivated, vengeful characters, although there are teasing hints that something like the cat-and-mouse games of The Handmaiden (2016, also written with Ms Jeong Seogyeong) may be going on here too. This time, the images are as ambiguous as the motives and emotions: Haejoon and Seorae are constantly brought together or juxtaposed in unexpected compositions, often involving surveillance-cam footage or video calls. Modern tech is in fact deployed throughout, notably a smart-watch which records voice-notes and a phone app which translates between Chinese and Korean, rarely clarifying anything. The mounting sense of delirium builds to the scene in which Haejoon visualises Seorae killing her husband by pushing him off the cliff, with Haejoon himself present as an unseen observer.

The rhapsodic approach probably wouldn’t work so well without the ultra-charismatic leads. Park Haeil, a stage-trained actor brought into movies by Bong Joonho to play the prime suspect in Memories of Murder (2003), is well-established as the Korean leading man least likely to succumb to macho posturing. And Tang Wei has emerged as the foremost Chinese actress of her generation since her ‘scandalous’ big-screen debut in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), sensibly balancing her choices between mainstream entertainments (such as Finding Mr Right, 2013) and arthouse experiments (Long Day’s Journey into Night, 2018). This is her second Korean movie after starring in Late Autumn (2010), directed by her husband-to-be Kim Taeyong. Seorae remains entirely enigmatic – a generic femme fatale – until the closing scenes of the film, but Tang Wei turns the potentially thankless role into a magnetic centre of attention, making her the first fully-realised woman protagonist in Park Chanwook’s cinema.

Decision to Leave (the Korean title Hye-eo-jil Gyeolsim means more exactly ‘Decision to Break Up’) is not the first Korean movie to sustain this type of ‘abstract narrative’ approach. It was pioneered by Park’s slightly older contemporary Lee Myungse in his films Duelist (2005) and M (2007), both intended to establish the actor Gang Dongwon as a major star. Gang is nowadays a bankable name, but Lee’s daring attempt to dissolve all barriers between outer and inner realities and value ambiguity was ahead of its time: both films died on Korean release, and Lee has made little since. Park, almost certainly with memories of Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the back of his mind, has cannily trusted to a fundamentally generic plot idea and two unimprovable lead actors to finesse the approach.

► Decision to Leave is one of the Headline Gala films at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 14 and 15 October.

Other things to explore

reviews

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads

By Roger Luckhurst

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads
reviews

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic

By Arjun Sajip

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic
reviews

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama

By Tom Charity

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama