Neo-noir thriller complicated by forbidden romance between suspect and detective.
If there’s one word to describe Korean director Park Chan-wook’s films, it’s that they’re undeniably stylish. Whether he’s producing an action flick, a rom-com or an intriguing thriller, there’s always something about Park’s work that is so smooth and satisfying to watch, feeling as if every scene has been completely planned out for maximum impact, and making you feel every single emotion running through the characters.
Never has this been more important than in his latest feature, Decision to Leave, a neo-noir thriller that sees a sleep-deprived detective enter an affair with one of his prime suspects. Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a hardboiled, grizzled detective who is put in charge of a case where a man falls from a mountain to his death. When foul play is suspected, all eyes turn to the deceased’s wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei). When taken in for questioning, Seo-rae shows little signs of agitation or grief, while further investigation reveals signs of physical abuse. While on stakeout, Hae-joon develops a burgeoning interest in Seo-rae, and the line between truth and desire becomes blurred.
Throughout Decision to Leave, the final solution may appear obvious at first, but Park keeps us hooked by employing multiple subplots that help draw attention away from the central mystery, with plenty of red herrings and distractors that keep us constantly second-guessing the true perpetrator. Central to this is Tang Wei’s performance as Seo-rae, the film’s assigned femme fatale. Playing a Chinese national who now lives in Korea, Seo-rae has a history that is steeped in mystery and tragedy, and one is never sure whether to sympathise with her, or accuse her of stone-cold murder. Tang Wei’s performance only adds to the mystery, with a dated style of speaking learned from period dramas, and translated voice recordings that enshroud her emotion with technology.
Our perspective also primarily follows detective Hae-joon, who begins to obsess over Seo-rae as he watches her from her home. Director Park closes the distance between the two by having him imagine being physically present in front of her, at times stubbing out her cigarette so she doesn’t burn the house down. As with other unusual romances, the connection between the two isn’t easily explainable, but there is a thrill and adrenaline rush watch as they are inexplicably drawn towards each other, with her ability to help him see a previously unsolvable case through the lens of love, and even helps him go to sleep via a meditation exercise.
Even though it’s firmly set in reality, there is a dream-like quality to Decision to Leave that emerges from the recurring symbolism, leaving us wary and somewhat unnerved, perhaps to reflect Hae-joon’s sleep-deprived mind. From a song about mist to Hae-joon and his wife actually moving to a mist-filled town, to imagery of jellyfish and the sea eventually being the backdrop to the film’s climax, there are so many poetic coincidences that enrich the film for the observant viewer, and becomes its own kind of hidden mystery for us to notice and draw connections between. Add on Park’s penchant for unusual camera angles and transitions, and it often feels like we’re sleepwalking through a lonely dreamscape.
It wouldn’t be a Park Chan-wook film without some degree of darkness and violence, and in Decision to Leave, despite its romantic overtones, still possesses a number of brutal images of murder victims and even a bloody death of a suspect on the run. Park Hae-il is given an opportunity to show off his physicality as well in an elegantly choreographed fight scene, while in a particularly devastating finale, we are left to imagine what becomes of Seo-rae following a harrowing predicament she puts herself in.
With Decision to Leave, Park Chan-wook proves he’s still one of the very best Korean directors around, and has produced a stunning homage to Hollywood film noir of the past. Atmospheric, chilling, and even heartbreaking in its portrayal of desire, even when the ‘villain’ is finally revealed, there are so many layers of complexity that one can neither fully condone nor condemn their actions. Love is a losing game in the world of Decision to Leave, and as the credits roll, you will be left haunted by how blind we can be when we give in to desire, and the trail of destruction it leaves in its wake.
Decision to Leave opens across cinemas, including Golden Village, from 14th July 2022. Tickets and details available here