Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Decision to Leave is South Korea’s submission for the American Oscars, and it is, in no way, an Oscar contender. It is not an event film, it is not an issues movie, it’s not based on a book. And yet, Park won Best Director at Cannes, and I can see why. His actors, Tang Wei and Park Hae-il, are electric and lived-in, respectively. His touch with film language is delicate but precise. The way he plays with time and space can only be described as “masterful,” in the sense that he becomes like a god of time and space. We see the flash of an image, and moments later, that image is contextualized, shepherding us through the story with a proper disorientation. In fact, we’re being oriented toward puzzle-solving. You could put a crumpled paper bag in front of Park Chan-wook, and he’d shoot it the one way that would make you feel something. If one of his films happens to be emotionally bereft, more fascinated by than curious about human nature, it must have been a choice.
Critics have for years supplied me with memorable sound bites to describe Park’s work, whether the “operatic intensity” of Oldboy or the “diamond-cutter precision” of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The latter especially has stuck with me, though now I can’t source it. Park applies his photographic skill here to a sparse, almost empty canvas, with limited and repeated locations. This is not a lavish 1930s Korea with hybrid architectural styles but a modern police station – the interrogation box, mostly!
The premise of “detective falls in love with murder suspect” is maybe just as interesting as “revenge,” but Park’s previously taken us on white-knuckle tours of genre obliteration. There are few revelations in Decision to Leave, and a story that feels cleverer than cathartic – altogether revealed only late in the runtime. It is not a “mystery box,” because that impulse is steeped in pop culture mythology, and critics have picked up on the note that it isn’t entirely a mystery, either. It’s a romance, but one that unfolds with the clockwork procedure of a noir thriller, revealing information and obscuring information simultaneously. Perhaps then we’re robbed of the basic pleasure of romance, and uncharacteristically given nothing shocking or devastating in exchange.
The film is dramatically inert, and that it was likely purposeful doesn’t solve the problem. There’s at least one in-universe K-drama, with dialogue later repeated by our principal players. In the first of three climaxes (the story spools up twice, stretching an already extended runtime into cinematic limbo), we have a scene of theatricality that feels deconstructive. It helps that any genuine drama here is undercut by Park Hae-il’s subtle, weary comedy. Are these characters playing out roles they’ve internalized from the world around them, just as we can predict the beats in a film noir? Our understanding of this scene may later be inverted, ultimately calculating something compelling by narrative algebra.
Maybe the great sin of Decision to Leave is that Park Chan-wook took this moment in time, his first production after the global success of Parasite, to step back and tinker a little bit. Exercise. “Why this story?” feels unfair but I’m not even sure about that; it’s completely novel. My high expectations weren’t fully tempered by the low-key trailer, which made a promise well delivered. At least, I think it does. The details are still coalescing. I’m willing to believe – even hopeful – that repeat viewings will resolve lingering questions and unlock hidden depths, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if, in a career retrospective, we’ve found that Decision to Leave is the director’s worst film. Beautiful and superbly performed, it’s disappointingly restrained, especially amidst a filmography full of madness and gore and operatic intensity.