Six years after lighting a fire in Cannes with his erotically charged thriller The Handmaiden, South Korean master Park Chan-wook returns with an altogether different work, a luscious neo-noir whose more restrained surface nonetheless reveals churning currents of sensuality and danger underneath. While the new film recalls procedural elements that go back to the director’s 2000 commercial breakthrough, Joint Security Area, this is a far richer, twistier detective story. Crafted with unforced humour, ravishing visuals and commanding maturity, Decision to Leave intoxicates with its potent brew of love, emotional manipulation — or is it? —and obsession.
Park is working in a vein here that’s both classical and typically idiosyncratic, his past fascination with sex and violence confined to more controlled yet still often wryly amusing terms. The director is very much doing his own thing, but his latest also benefits from stylish nods to Douglas Sirk, in its lush heights of melodrama and a gaze that frequently observes characters in mirrors, on computer monitors or through fragmenting screens; to Hitchcock in its teasing suspense and a heady spiral of romantic mystery that recalls Vertigo in particular; and even to Pedro Almodóvar in its attention to the ways design elements can shape character and story.
Decision to Leave
The Bottom Line
A world-class artist at the top of his game.
The protagonist is sharp-minded, scrupulously tidy detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), who not coincidentally is a fan of the Martin Beck novels about the fictional Swedish sleuth known for his professional rectitude. In a funny illustration of Hae-joon’s disdain for doing things the easy way, he frustrates his more impetuous young deputy, Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo), by insisting on following, in reverse, the route of a man who has fallen to his death from the peak of a rock formation.
That striking setting, with tree growth artfully sprouting on top like bonsai, appears to be the spectacularly theatrical work of production designer Ryu Seong-hie. The misty mountains provide elegant symmetry with the rocky coastline and crashing waves that close the film.
The wife of the dead man at the base of the cliff is Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant significantly younger than her late husband, who was instrumental in getting her grandfather decorated for his service to the Korean independence movement and in pushing through her Korean citizenship. She seems oddly unperturbed by her loss, even when Hae-joon shows her photographs of her husband’s broken body and smashed skull.
Starting with those first encounters, the percussive notes of Cho Young-wuk’s tonally wide-ranging score create needling questions around Seo-rae, while cinematographer Kim Ji-young’s skewed framing and bold use of color also suggest she might be another of Park’s memorable femmes fatales.
Hae-joon suffers from insomnia, causing him frequent need of eye drops — one of a wide selection of personal items he carries in suits tailored for that purpose, with 12 pockets in his jacket and six in his pants. Both during interrogation and while watching Seo-rae on stakeouts, he gets plenty of reasons to consider her a suspect, including when she swiftly returns to work in her job as an elder-care nurse. “Living old people come before dead husbands,” she says, with characteristic lack of emotion.
As illustrating details of Seo-rae’s marriage emerge, Hae-joon is drawn to her simultaneously in an unreadable yet direct manner, a contradiction enhanced by her imperfect linguistic grasp of Korean. They start spending time together in the city apartment he keeps as his work-week base — another beautiful design feature with its Hokusai-style wave wallpaper and dark wood trim — away from the lighter, brighter coastal family home he shares with his wife, Jung -an (Lee Jung-hyun).
Even after Seo-rae’s husband’s case is ruled a suicide, she and Hae-joon continue their association. He makes his version of Chinese food for her, and while she questions its culinary authenticity she’s complimentary about the flavor. She also starts coaxing him to sleep, whispering words of the sea — an important motif here — and caring for him the way she does her elderly patients. When she uncovers a wall of cold-case photographs, including that of her late husband, she questions whether his inability to let these unsolved cases go is what stops him finding peace.
Seo-rae eventually moves away from the area only to return some time later, awkwardly encountering Hae-joon and his wife in a market and introducing them to her new husband, TV finance guru Ho-shin (Park Yong-woo).
The script by Park and regular co-writer Chung Seo-kyung takes a number of interesting turns as the depths of Hae-joon’s not-entirely-past infatuation with Seo-rae become clear, along with another death, this time incontrovertibly a murder. Hae-joon has a new female lieutenant (Kim Shin-young) with him on that investigation, whose rough-edged manners contrasts with his punctiliousness and injects droll humour. Likewise, a grudge-bearing character nicknamed Slappy (Seo Hyun-woo) for good reason, who brings an element of vintage Park punch.
The two leads have smoldering chemistry. As the cop who often speaks like a poet, Park Hae-il conveys the pull between his character’s exacting sense of duty and the more ungovernable forces of his heart, while Tang Wei (so divine as the seductive spy in Ang Lee’s) Lust, Caution) keeps you guessing about her character right up until the film’s affecting denouement, when her feelings for the detective become unambiguous.
That tragic final act is elevated by some of the most gorgeous passages in composer Cho’s score and by DP Kim’s consistently arresting sense of composition, with expressive use of low/high angles. One overhead shot toward the end, of a breakwater road slicing through the middle of a magnificent physical setting, is an absolute stunner.
As he showed in The Handmaiden, Park has reached a point in his career where his attention to aesthetics is matched by an ability to probe his characters’ psychological recesses and walled-off emotional chambers in ways both moving and playful — all while navigating multilayered plots that continue to deliver surprises right up until the end. It’s a luxury to put yourself as a viewer in such capable hands.