I consider myself a cineaste. But am I really? Case in point: I’ve never seen a Park Chan-wook film until now with his latest, Decision to Leave. The lauded filmmaker’s 2022 release was in the running for this year’s Palme d’Or, the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival. The film didn’t win, but it did net the Best Director award from the esteemed French festival. We can argue whether these awards actually mean anything another time, my point is, some people clearly think the dude’s got talent. But as prestigious as he may be, this review will not measure the famed South Korean director’s latest against his respected oeuvre because, um, I haven’t seen any of it.
But there’s a silver lining to my filmic dereliction:
If you come across any review of Chan-wook’s post-2003 work, it inevitably includes some variation of this maddening phrase: It’s not as good as (the director’s most famous film) Oldboy.
At least, you won’t get that here.
But taken as a stand-alone, what kind of movie, exactly, is Decision to Leave?
Fuck if I know.
If I may dip my pen in the lazy comparison inkwell for a moment, it could most easily be described as a Hitchcockian thriller. But really, it’s more of a Hitchcockian whatchamacallit.
The movie starts with a whiplash of info and tones, dropping you into its world with nary a guide: a world of detectives and police procedurals and…dead-pan humor? Names of suspects fly at you fast and a crime trail is followed by a downtrodden inspector, and yet, throughout, sharp contrasting edits suggest a sense of humor, making you go, wait? Is this a comedy?
We follow the detective as he questions an obliging witness, a young woman who seems to want this man’s approval. I mean, Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is handsome, so that may explain that, though he does look awfully tired and summarily disinterested in this wide-eyed informant. He’s constantly popping eye drops (can you pop eye drops? It sounds better than dropping eye drops, right?). He’s clearly depressed but he’s not some rumpled, Columbo-esque “eeehhhm, just one more question?” schlub either. He’s meticulously put together. Perfectly coifed hair, whipped to the side just so, a brown topcoat that perfectly accentuates his ever-somber-hued, casual Friday suits with just a pop of color. And his shoes? Black sneakers with patent leather accents, of course, so he can look professional and chase suspects when needed.
Clearly, Chan Wook-park, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jeong Seo-kyeong, worked hard at making a unique character to center this story on. Hae-jun is still the kind of dupe that often traverses these kinds of mystery movies, but at least he’s not your average dupe.
Plot-wise, none of this early movie detecting is terribly important, but it does come back into play halfway through the film, though more for allegorical reasons than anything else. Speaking of, there’s definitely a lot of subtextual stuff going on in this movie. There’s an eye/vision/seeing motif for sure, with many scenes cutting to close-ups of eyes or to their actual point of view. One of the more ghoulish moments is the POV of a dead body with ants crawling over his eyes – of course, this begs the question, can a dead body have a point of view? Depressing thought, but that’s not my point. What I’m trying to say is, seriously, this movie really is a whatchamacallit.
Things really get rolling when Hae-jun is called in to investigate that dead body with the ants crawling around it, found in the foothills next to a steep mountain in South Korea. The dearly departed, wearing climbing gear and having posted many self-made mountain climbing videos online clearly was doing just that, climbing a mountain when he fell and perished. But was it an accident or was he pushed?
That’s when the femme fatale shows up, Seo Rae (Tang Wei), the newly widowed wife of the dead man, and while she’s definitely femme, she certainly doesn’t seem fatale. She’s a quiet woman, a Chinese ex-pat who often introduces herself with an apology. She exudes a becalmed innocence levied by unexpected confidence. She’s confident in her innocence, you might say.
Of course—paging Mr. Hitchcock—Hae-jun is immediately smitten with her and begins jeopardizing the case because of his feelings.
But this is where the movie, for a while at least, becomes more than just a pastiche or an ode to a classic filmmaker.
While doing research for Decision to Leave, I came across a headline that boldly called the film an “erotic thriller.”
It is no such thing.
And that’s exactly what makes it so interesting.
With a setup like the one in Decision to Leave, you would naturally expect an erotic slant. But Body Heat this is most definitely not. What does follow is almost…chaste? A sweet back and forth between two people drawn to each other. They like spending time together. He cooks for her, they take long walks in the rain together and, this movie being this movie, she helps him solve some of the cold cases that have been haunting him.
You see, Hae-jun’s attraction to Seo Rae isn’t the stuff of horndog legend. He’s not just trying to get off with a pretty woman. He simply likes talking to her, being around her, and you get why: she’s unique in her personality and attitude. When Seo Rae catches Hae-jun asleep while staking out her apartment, she sneaks up and takes a picture, the flash startling him awake. But what he wakes up to isn’t righteous indignation, but a smile and a completely earnest “Good Morning!” before slinking off to her car as if nothing weird had happened.
That central relationship really spoke to me, meeting a person you just kind of easily vibe with and find an instant connection with. I’ve actually met a couple of people like that just recently. It’s not romantic or anything, but they’re completely unique and charming and just cool to be around, so this section of the movie poked me in the feels quite a bit.
But alas, that’s also why I didn’t like where the story goes after that, even though there’s nothing wrong with the second half of the movie. What happens next should keep audiences more than reasonably riveted, with bravura sequences that are sharply edited for maximum tension and everything leading to a beautifully shot beach set ending that no one will soon forget.
But swooney Pavel, so charmed by the first half of the movie?
Much like a character in a romantic thriller, he felt betrayed.