A police detective falls in a tangled web of love and obsession with his murder suspect in the latest romance thriller from Park Chan-wook.
MUBI is a niche streaming service that specializes in bringing world cinema to audiences everywhere, and at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, they were the big winners in acquiring the North American theatrical distribution rights to Chan-wook Park’s newest film, Decision to Leave. The results of this collaboration adds not only a standout entry in the streamer’s body of original films, but also one of the best mystery-thrillers of the year thanks to Park’s stellar talents as a storyteller, whether they be the unique editing techniques, creative shot compositions and the powerful nuanced performances he receives from his two lead actors.
Decision to Leave follows Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), a police detective so preoccupied with his work in Busan, that volunteering as stakeout for his station has not only driven him to insomnia, but also brought about a strain in his marriage to Ahn Jeong-ahn (Lee Jung-hyun). But after mountain climbing enthusiast Ki Do-soo (Yoo Seung-mok) is reported deceased at the foot of a cliff he had been exploring, Hae-joon takes it upon himself to close the case and find the perpetrator responsible for Ki’s death.
Hae-joon’s first suspect is Ki’s widow Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who insists on her innocence yet seemingly gives herself away as the culprit through a subtle laugh in response to one of Hae-joon’s questions in their initial interrogation. From there, Hae-joon spies on Song’s private life, which turns his obsession with his job into a fascination with her to the point where the two gradually begin to fall in love, with his interrogations of her even transitioning into high-end sushi dinners, to the disbelief of Hae-joon’s co-workers. But their passion for each other sends Hae-joon into a web of revelations about his murder suspect-turned-lover that neither he nor Song can afford to expose out in the open.
What makes Decision to Leave a sumptuous film watching experience is Park Chan-wook’s direction. Since reaching American audiences with Oldboy in 2003, he’s striven to marvel audiences with stylistic choices that make each of his films unique, and his latest neo-noir romance is no exception. Everything within the narrative feels uneasy in a way that evokes intrigue through a combination of unconventional mise-en-scene and meticulous editing, such as when Hae-joon uses eye drops and looks down the cliff at Ki’s dead body on the ground far below him before cutting to a closeup of Ki’s open, lifeless eyes in a haunting match cut, even following it up with a first-person POV shot from the corpse as ants crawl along its vision.
Park’s knack for kinetic visuals also serves to set viewers into the mind of its characters. For example, as Hae-joon watches Song work her day job assisting the elderly, the film cuts from the infatuated detective spying on his suspect through binoculars to inside Song’s senior patient’s house, sharply zooming out to reveal Hae-joon mentally transported inside the residence. Meanwhile, more uncertainties about Song are crafted through the shot compositions, like in the two-shots of Hae-joon’s interrogation room, where the mirror reflections of himself and Song are reflected behind them as if to convey both their double lives.
The film also does a stellar job of creating eroticism between its main characters, whether it’s through the soaring orchestral score when Hae-joon and Song traverse an ancient Buddhist temple where Hae-joon learns about Song’s culture, or when the script uses the language barrier to add suspicion such as when Song has difficulty saying the word ‘solitary’ in Korean, to the point where she can only laugh at her struggles.
There’s also an unbelievable power in the screenplay’s imagery that comes through in a beautiful scene where Song helps Hae-joon overcome his insomnia through guided meditation, where she asks him to match his breathing with hers before hypnotizing him into thinking he’s a creature of the sea. The performances from Tang Wei and Hae-il also fill Decision to Leave with amorousness via naturalist nuances that make the love between their characters endearing, from the way Hae-il playfully dodges Song when she tries to put her chapstick on his lips, to how an upward turn of Wei’s head along with the smallest smile underneath stylized lights communicates Song’s gentle enticing of Hae-joon into confiding a secret to her in Chinese.
As engaging as Decision to Leave is, the narrative loses some steam when it jumps forward in time by three months at the halfway point. Then, the pacing of Park’s latest slows to something more dramatic, with the bewildering visual touches from the first half only coming in moments few and far between each other. It’s also worth noting that any twists in the second half are more grounded in neo-noir conventions than they are in other Asian dramas that take turns for the weird, so audiences expecting a genre-bending twist akin to Parasite will be let down.
But Park has something monumental in mind for the messages of his latest narrative, and the climax to Decision to Leave is as sad as it is grand in making thoughtful statements about the human condition, from man’s inner pride is in constant conflict with one’s capacity for love, to mankind’s desire for power in a world where the marginalized have none. Audiences will feel invited by the film’s editing to make their own investigations about Hae-joon and Song based on quick edits to closeups of their facial expressions, be engrossed by the beautiful romance of their affair, and ponder about the ending long after its conclusion. It plays with expectations in a more quiet and realistic way than other foreign dramas, and that’s why everyone should make the decision to see Decision to Leave.