2022 | rated PG-13 | starring Park Hae-il, Tang Wei | directed by Park Chan-Wook | 2h 18m | In Korean and Chinese with English Subtitles |
Park Chan-Wook hasn’t put out a lot of films in recent years, making each new one something of an event. The auteur director was an introduction to Korean cinema for a generation with his seminal revenge film Oldboy and has since venture away from the bloodletting of the Vengeance Trilogy that marked his early career as if proving to himself or the world that he’s matured. While Bong Joon-Ho has taken the Korean filmmaking spotlight recently, it’s Park who first captured our imaginations with his complexity, sense of humor, style and multi-dimensional stories. We’ve seen the softer side before, with his masterful vampire love story Thirst and his twisty mystery The Handmaiden, but for Decision to Leave Park throws off all the genre safety nets and leaps fully into mainstream love story territory – thankfully he’s Park Chan-Wook and does it with his own brand of wit, quirky and beauty.
After a man is found dead at the bottom of a mountain, Detective Jang Hae-Joon (The Host) looks into his wife, Song Seo-Rae (Tang Wei) a Chinese immigrant covered in bruises from his abuse, as a suspect. Soon his sleepless, late night surveillance turns to love and the two embark on an emotional affair as he attempts to solve the case and find out if the mountain climber fell or his new relationship is with a murderer.
A detective falling for his prime suspect is classic film noir. It was the plot of Basic Instinct when that movie scandalized America in the 90s. But Decision is a lighter and sweeter film than that would suggest. Park would rather construct a story of two lost and fated souls coming together than detail the complexity of the infidelity and salaciousness of a serial killer. Park plays coy with Seo-Rae, having her laugh like a psychopath at inappropriate times playing her innocent the next. Jang and his long-suffering partner Soon Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) come in the tradition of wacky detectives like those that headlined Memories of Murder or The Wailing.
The movie is brimming with personality and character details. The movie doesn’t need to add in a small subplot of Jang and Soon Wan chasing down a turtle smuggler and wrangling together the turtles or opening a scene with Soon Wan being immediately stabbed with a pair of scissors and running it off like it’s nothing, but that’s the joy and the charm of Park’s films.
It’s famously said that Fight Club isn’t a movie you watch, it’s a movie you download and I suspect that’s how Decison to Leave works. It’s a movie that just starts right off the bat, thrusting us in the middle of the live of our hero, introducing several characters and conflicts all at once and demanding that we put the pieces together. We are immediately introduced to a marriage on the rocks, an unsolved case that vexes the detective and a partner devoted to him to a hilarious degree.
Park does this often in the film. Cutting back and forth in time, writing the dialog as a punchline to a situation before the set-up and having the characters regularly lie and fantasize about being in places they aren’t. It’s not a movie to read literally which is a tendency we have with subtitled films. Making it more complicated, it’s integral to the plot that our two heroes are actually speaking different languages making the communication barrier between them a hard thing to translate when both languages are subtitled in English. Point being, Decision requires you to be off your phone and pay attention and it’s a refreshing feast for those willing to crack through the puzzlebox.
What Decision to Leave does not to is break ground, perhaps an unfair expectation. It’s a very good film within it’s genre by one of the best filmmakers in the world today. However, this is mid-tier Park, not as galvanizing or invigorating. It ends on a resolution in fitting with the melancholy we usually find in South Korean cinema, but one not nearly as satisfying as the rest of his filmography. A film that without his influence, his visual style, the way the film is assembled, how beautifully it’s shot, wouldn’t be nearly as rich as it is. It’s a treat.