Synopsis: When the body of an amateur climber is found at the foot of one of his favourite climbing spots, the case seems at first to be cut-and-dried for insomniac lead detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), an ace investigator with a stable but chilly ‘weekend marriage’. However, as he looks deeper into the case and into the victim’s enigmatic Chinese immigrant widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei), his suspicions – and other more complicated feelings – begin to be aroused.
1. The most shocking thing about Decision to Leave is its restraint. This is, after all, the latest work by Park Chan-wook, whose best and most (in)famous film Oldboy (2003) is synonymous with transgression. Brutality in both the realms of sex and violence is a core part of Park’s filmography, which has never shied away from explicit depictions of said acts onscreen. So believe me when I say that the most shocking part of Decision to Leave is how its central relationship features only a single chaste kiss, which stands in stark contrast to the numerous sex scenes in Park’s previous film, The Handmaiden (2016). What is far less surprising is that this choice, along with the restraint shown in the rest of Decision to Leave, all adds up to making it one of the best films of the year. It is undoubtedly a work made by a master, someone so thoroughly in control of their powers that (almost) every single creative choice is not just the right one, but also the most interesting one. Everything (and yes, I mean it in the Gary Oldman way) in this film is so stylish, so artful and so clever that it puts 99% of the motion picture industry to shame. It is not quite perfect, with Park’s general Achilles heel of overstuffing his movies with incident causing the last act to feel a little flabby, but most of Decision to Leave is filmed at such at astonishingly high level that it matters not a jot.
2. I have to start with style, because holy shit you guys, it’s just so … good. And yes, I know that word is anticlimactic, but believe you me, nothing in my lexical index could possibly match up to the level which Park Chan-wook is working at. Even the simplest of shots is composed impeccably. An early three-shot of Hae-jun framed by his out-of-focus partner in the background and the back of Seo-rae’s head in the foreground is a perfect indicator of the level of visual storytelling that is to come. Every shot between Hae-jun and Seo-rae in the interrogation room feels like the filmmaker thumbing his nose at the idea that we’ve seen every possible variation of this trope. There is a shot of both main characters staring at each other, except neither of them are in the shot – one is on a TV screen and the other is a reflection in the mirror. There is a shot of Hae-jun breaking down and lobbing accusations at Seo-rae, with his back blocking her from the camera … except for the briefest moment where he puts his arms on his hips and we see her face through the gap between his arm and his body and that one single facial expression says more than any wordy monologue ever could. There is a shot of both of their hands cleaning up the interrogation table in tandem after a sushi dinner, and it’s blocked and framed so perfectly it feels like an intricately choreographed dance. You get the idea. I could begin every sentence with ‘there is a shot’ and this would still be my longest review, because (if I have not made it clear), every single shot in this movie is perfect. And I’ve only listed the ‘simple’ ones so far! I’ve not even talked about how the camera moves in this (perfectly), how it uses subjective point-of-view (perfectly) or how it captures the majesty of nature in a way that is simultaneously awe and terror inducing (perfectly, of course).
3. And the individual shots themselves are only part of the equation, because holy shit, those edits and scene transitions! I mean, there is a close-up of Seo-rae’s skeleton, broken by domestic violence, which then starts to move because guess what, it’s now a shot of Hae-jun’s skeleton and we zoom out and guess what, he’s having loveless sex with his wife, and guess what, it’s not even the most impressive transition in the film. That would be when the shot of the fire caused by Hae-jun and Seo-rae burning her case photos match cuts into a dimming light bulb as Seo-rae lulls him to sleep which then further match cuts into the eye of a painted deity on a mural of the temple which they visit the next day. I mean, who thinks of this? There is a confidence exuded throughout every decision in Decision to Leave. It is the sense that you’re in the hands of a master who knows exactly what he is doing. Style exists not just for style’s sake, but for the sake of narrative and thematic impact. Take for example the jump cut, that most obvious of ‘stylish edits’. Consider how it’s used to transit from a brawl in a Korean BBQ restaurant to the aftermath of Hae-jun sitting forlornly in the dark. Or the gag of Seo-rae staring at her destroyed house to Hae-jun dutifully vacuuming. Again, I could just go on and on, because whenever I think that Park cannot top himself, I get a (deep breath) point-of-view shot from the drainage hole of a swimming pool as bloodied water swirls through it. I say it again for added emphasis – who thinks of this shit?
4. Park Chan-wook, that’s who. This is the dude who filmed the one-shot hammer fight in Oldboy, a scene so transfixing not because of unimpeachable fight choreography or balletic stuntwork, but because it dared to deliver what nearly every cinematic fight scene leaves out – clumsiness, exhaustion, and pain. So much pain. Park is a prophet of pain, both physical and emotional, and his best scenes are all about how we overcome or succumb (or both) to it. And while Hae-jun at first seems to live a pain-free life, what with his career success and beautiful wife, it doesn’t take long before he is drawn in to Seo-rae’s own pain, both physical (she is a victim of domestic abuse) and emotional (as a lonely widowed immigrant). And while the overtones of film noir are unmistakable, Decision to Leave subverts or leaves ambiguous many of the genre’s most prominent tropes. Is Seo-rae a cunning femme fatale or a battered victim? Is Hae-jun a cool, objective investigator or an obsessive replacing intimacy with murder? Why not both? The central relationship, much like the plot of the movie, is a knotty, tangled thing, but I’d argue that this is a feature rather than a bug. Nothing about the romance between Hae-jun and Seo-rae is cut-and-dried, and this complexity creates a sense of instability and ambivalence that lasts all the way to the final frame.
5. Park is ably assisted by his actors, who are in excellent form. The obvious standout is Tang Wei, who first gained international attention for her superlative work in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) – aptly enough also playing a morally ambiguous femme fatale who develops a complicated attraction to her target. Tang’s performance is quite easily one of the best of the year, and the film would not work half as well without her ability to shift in and out of various roles, all while maintaining a similar foundation of independence, cunning, and ruthlessness. She is as convincing as a battered wife, a lonely immigrant, a scheming murderer, and everything in between. It further speaks volumes of Tang’s performance that Seo-rae’s love for Hae-jun is never in doubt, regardless of all the morally dubious actions that she undertakes. It’s subtle but tremendously affecting work, to express affection through nothing more than a slight shift in facial posture, and Tang is never short of masterful. Park Hae-il is just as excellent as Hae-jun, as his seeming composure and cool in the first act of the film slowly crumbles away as he gets closer and closer to Seo-rae. As great as the central pair is, they are ably supported by a plethora of fantastic supporting performances, from Lee Jung-hyun as Hae-jun’s endlessly patient (until she isn’t) wife to Go Kyung-pyo as Hae-jun’s impulsive younger partner to Kim Shin-young as a seemingly bumbling (until she isn’t) junior detective. If anything, the strength of these performances further illustrates how well-written the screenplay (co-written by Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong) of Decision to Leave is, as every single character, even a murderous criminal who turns up for one scene, is granted an extraordinary level of depth most other films would not bother with.
6. It must be noted though, that Decision to Leave is not a perfect film, particularly when set in the filmography of the dude who made the Vengeance trilogy and The Handmaiden. It does get baggy in parts, particularly in the second half, which does not quite meet the superlative standards of the first. In particular, the exposition of the latter portion is dumped rather unceremoniously compared to the deliberate way it is doled out in the first half. Certain scenes also are a little draggy, once again especially in the second half due to the film revisiting scenes and interactions that felt a lot better in the first. Nonetheless, a lesser work from a master still remains a masterpiece, and Decision to Leave is undoubtedly that. Shot and edited with a panache and style that most other filmmakers would not even dare dream of, Park Chan-wook continues to prove that he is working at peak form, eschewing the explicit sex and violence of his previous work for a film that is no less affecting than what came before. It revels in gorgeously stylised ambivalence, as best exemplified by its final shot – a desperate man knee deep in water in the magic hour, clawing his way to the truth of a woman that he will never arrive at.
Verdict: Highly Recommended