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In the intricate and seductive Decision To Leave, unfulfilled passion is the crime

A detective falls for a murder suspect in the latest from Oldboy and Handmaiden director Park Chan-wook

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(from left) Park Hae-Il and Tang Wei in Park Chan-Wook’s Decision To Leave.
(from left) Park Hae-Il and Tang Wei in Park Chan-Wook’s Decision To Leave.
Photo: Mubi

On its deceptively clean surface, Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave is the story of a detective who falls obsessively in love with a suspect. But that’s like saying Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad is about a man and woman who meet at a hotel. In Park’s first film since 2016's The Handmaiden, the devil is in the details—and there are dizzying amounts of them. The South Korean director, working at the top of his game, drops tantalizing clues that are best analyzed in multiple viewings which, it can be reported from first-hand experience, will be very helpful.

His nonstop visual inventiveness stresses the longing that Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, taking his place amongst the great film noir detective saps) feels for possible black widow Seo-rae (a captivating Tang Wei from Lust, Caution). They show simmering chemistry in this poignant and near inscrutable love story, where the more Hae-joon learns about Seo-rae, the more mysterious she becomes, which has the viewer constantly questioning what they see and hear. Whether Seo-rae murdered not one but two husbands is beside the point, while Park, in a way that feels both timeless and distinctly modern, uses her possible crimes to tell a story that is coolly restrained yet roiling with suppressed desire.

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Coolly restrained is not a phrase one would normally use to describe Park’s work. Yet here he jettisons the gonzo violence of 2003’s OldBoy and the hothouse eroticism of The Handmaiden and replaces them with profoundly felt emotions that remain forever unexpressed through shifting visual points of view that keep us off-balance. The eyedrops that Hae-joon uses to clear his vision is our first indication that everyone’s perception can be easily clouded. He’s the youngest-ever inspector in the busy South Korean city of Busan. His wife (Lee Jung-hyun) lives hours away in the sleepy, mist-covered town of Ipo, so the couple only see each other on weekends. “You need murder and violence in order to be happy,” she tells her husband—and that’s exactly what he gets when a dead man’s body is found at the base of a slender, vertiginous rock.

As Hae-joon begins his investigation, Park wrings humor out of his meticulous and thorough nature but his deeply internalized need for certainty will struggle against the irrational needs of his heart when he meets the dead man’s widow. Seo-rae arrived from China years earlier under difficult circumstances. She’s prone to announcing that her Korean language skills are “insufficient” which only makes her appear not entirely trustworthy. She is also not particularly saddened by her husband’s death, so when Hae-joon sees the man’s initials literally branded on her torso, Seo-rae goes from pitiable widow to prime murder suspect.

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Seo-rae’s impenetrable air is augmented by Park’s ingenious use of technology to show how smartphones can create distance as much as they can bring people together. She often uses Google translate to communicate with Hae-joon, adding a layer of disconnect between them. Later, a phone app is used to devastating effect, leaving Hae-joon shattered. Park does overplay his technological hand in the final stretch with a cell phone, retrieved from its underwater grave, that contains so many text messages and voice notes that it almost swallows the film. Park, never one to hold an audience’s hand, cheekily addresses the issue with Hae-joon’s line, “Why don’t you answer me straight? This is so frustrating!”

After Seo-rae is ruled out as a suspect, the pair continue seeing each other, often at his Busan home which contains an entire wall filled with cold case photos. It’s a monument to Hae-joon’s tireless urge to achieve closure and his obsession with Seo-rae is predicated on the idea that she is a mystery he cannot solve. As for Seo-rae, she sees Hae-joon as her protector, someone who will “treat me as you will, as you always did … like a suspect.” To convey such abstract notions, Park, working with the outstanding cinematographer Kim Ji-yong, is ever-inventive, as when Hae-joon interacts with Seo-rae in her apartment even though he’s actually watching her from his car or talking to her on the phone.

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Eventually the action jumps forward 13 months and moves to Ipo, where Hae-joon has been transferred so he can live full-time with his wife. When they bump into Seo-rae at a local market with her new husband, we wonder: did Seo-rae move to Ipo to escape Hae-joon? Or to get closer to him? The answer becomes irrelevant when the new husband also ends up dead, and Hae-joon is forced back into Seo-rae’s seductive orbit. Park luxuriates in the Hitchcockian possibilities, both visual and thematic, of all this. He’s aided enormously by Cho Young-wuk’s gorgeously textured score and, most crucially, the harmonious interaction of his two leads. Although much of their feelings for each other are left unsaid, their precision movements express their intense connection, as in a masterfully staged interrogation scene that ends with Hae-joon and Seo-rae silently finishing their lunch and wiping clean the table like a long-married couple.

Working at high levels of craft and with the delicacy of a watchmaker, Park spins an intricate web where everything has its place, even seemingly unrelated moments like the well-staged rooftop chase and the tasty, if not authentic, Chinese food that Hae-joon prepares for Seo-rae. The drawback of Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong’s dense and twisty script is that its tragic ending works on an intellectual, puzzle-solving level more than an emotional one. But with Decision To Leave, Park expands his formidably-deep skill set. The film is a reserved (for Park, at least) and probing drama about a man who risks being professionally corrupted and personally destroyed by a woman about which he knows everything—and nothing.