It is always a pleasure to see new work from director Park Chan-wook, whose off-kilter and superbly imaginative thrillers played a huge part in bringing contemporary Korean cinema to a world stage. While it was Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) that became a global sensation and Oscar-winner, it was films like JSA: Joint Security Area (2000), Oldboy (2003), and The Handmaiden (2016) that helped pave the road to its success. After a six year break, during which he worked largely in television, Park has returned with his 11th narrative feature Decision to Leave.
Decision to Leave, compared to much of Park’s oeuvre, has a surprisingly conventional and straight-forward narrative. Viewers anticipating the sorts of twists and surprises undertaken in Oldboy and The Handmaiden – for example – may very well find this new film a small disappointment. Taken on its own merits, the film is a wonderful combination of murder mystery, femme fatale thriller, and unsettling romance. Taken with a modicum of patience, and Park’s queasy, unpredictable style emerges in a far more mature fashion than before.
Police detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) investigates the death of a wealthy mountain climber, who appears to have fallen by accident to his death. The victim’s Chinese immigrant wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei) seems oddly sanguine about her loss, and a conflicted Hae-jun is both suspicious of her motives and attracted to her as well.
It is difficult to fully pin Decision to Leave down. It is a thriller, very much in the classical Hitchcock mode, but it never quite matches the level of suspense that label implies. It is also remarkably sensual for film without sex, and oddly romantic at the same time. The Korean trend towards strongly enhanced emotion sets it apart from similar thrillers from other countries and cultures – to call it overwrought would imply a negative connotation to a perfectly valid tone. The film’s narrative structure feels odd as well, abandoning a traditional three act structure into something more akin to two acts. At first it feels the story is wrapping up too early, and then an entire second section the story opens up.
It looks tremendous, of course, thanks to cinematographer Kim Ji-yong (Swing Kids, The Age of Shadows), and captures its Busan location very well. It’s a big cinematic year for the coastal Korean port, appearing in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Broker as well.
This is Tang Wei’s film. Seo-rae is all manner of adjectives at once: mysterious, sympathetic, seductive, charming, and frightening all in turn. She has always been a gifted actor, but with Decision to Leave it really feels as if she has grown and developed to another level. It is likely the very best screen performance I have seen so far this year.
This is a superb return to cinema for one of South Korea’s most talented filmmakers, showing a fresh restraint and a canny understanding of genre convention: not just how to follow the rules, but where and how they can be broken in the same movie. It’s an absolute winner.
Decision to Leave has been screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, will screen nationally at the 2022 Korean Film Festival, and will open across cinemas in Australia later this year.