Released 2022. Director: Park Chan-wook
A MAN FALLS TO HIS DEATH DOING ROCK CLIMBING. ACCIDENT, SUICIDE OR FOUL PLAY? The detective on the case finds himself attracted to the dead man’s wife despite suspecting her of murder.
Those two lines barely scratch the surface of the byzantine plot of Decision To Leave, a tightly layered mystery drama from director Park Chan-wook, best known for the acclaimed Oldboy and The Handmaiden. His latest is another meticulously crafted work, a narrative maze of intricate design and a psychological probe of untold desires and secrets.
From their first meeting, detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-li) is inextricably drawn to Seo-rae (Tang Wei). Whilst the seasoned sleuth has his doubts about the widow’s innocence, he can find no crack in the woman’s solid alibi. So the insomniac detective starts to stake out outside her apartment on a one-man surveillance. Or maybe that’s more to do with his growing personal interest, rather than professional.
The man’s objectivity might have been compromised but his investigative instincts remain alert and when he follows up on a new clue, it leads him to a place he doesn’t wish to go. This, I might add, is only halfway through the movie when the case is solved but the puzzle has a lot more still to reveal on the characters.
Fallen hopelessly and illogically under her spell, the cop is obsessed with Seo-rae. As his wife lives in another town and he only returns home to her once a week, Hae-joon spends many nights in his car outside Soo-rae’s apartment. Despite getting increasingly closer to his object of obsession, Hae-joon is a man as fully committed to his work as he is to his marriage. Although he continues to see Seo-rae and visits her at home, even cooks for her at his place, sharing a lip gloss is as close as the pair gets to physical intimacy.
Tang Wei’s standout performance in this movie can aptly be described as beguiling. You can never be certain what Seo-rae is thinking, or if you could trust what she says. Tang made a remarkable debut in the erotic espionage thriller Lust, Caution directed by Ang Lee in 2007. Far from the ingénue in her first role, Tang’s subtle and restrained portrayal of Seo-rae is a woman with full control of the situation without seemingly lifting a finger. Seo-rae is a Chinese immigrant whose grandfather fought in the Korean War. Her connections, past and present, are hard to untangle as the main plot strand unravels to show us different facets of this woman who gives little away. As a femme fatale, Tang is poised, mesmeric and enigmatic. Her performance is nuanced and precise.
Director Park Chan-wook presents the movie as much a police procedural as it is a drama about identities. With his cinematographer Kim Ji-yong, Park gives the movie a muted and mellow palette to accentuate the pervading mood of ambiguity. Off-kilter shots and clever editing draw our attention to certain objects or spaces. From time to time, you get a moment of visual ingenuity befitting the convoluted narrative and the strange ambience. He sometimes places characters in their own imagination. Hae-joon appears next to Seo-rae in the room when he’s really looking at her through surveillance binoculars. He sees her, but he doesn’t really see her.
Decision To Leave is Korean neo-noir with a sense of cool detachment. Park’s directing is assured and visually confident, weaving mystery, drama and humour with class and flair in an even tone. Slowly but with a degree of potent urgency, Park brings us to an ending with the emotional devastation that sucks your breath away as the final scene fades to black. The Oscars is still a few months away and I say Park stands a very good chance to be nominated for Best Director. Watch the movie and see if you don’t agree.
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