Review: 'Decision to Leave’ Is the Most Accessible Park Chan-wook in Years
Park Chan-wook returns to the big screen with Decision to Leave, a romantic thriller in which a detective falls for the prime suspect of a murder. Here’s our non-spoiler review.
When poking around in the massive world of Asian cinema, you’ll often get a Park Chan-wook recommendation (typically Oldboy or The Handmaiden) because he’s been regarded as one of the greatest South Korean directors alive for like 20 years now. While his films may not be the easiest to get into for Western audiences just starting to watch Asian cinema, I wouldn’t call any of them difficult. Even when they are lengthy and stuffed with names, twists, and non-linear narration, the writer-director has a knack for dynamic shots, agile editing, and scripts that feel like jigsaw puzzles worth solving before the films reach the finish line and present their own conclusions.
As expected, Decision to Leave is entirely shaped by Park Chan-wook’s core principles, yet we could argue it’s his most approachable work in years. A crime thriller at its core, the film leans more than you’d expect on the K-drama angle, with a mystery which isn’t that mysterious and instead carries and elevates one of the most atypical on-screen romances I’ve seen recently. Instead of looking for the truth about the murder that kicks off the narration, you’ll be hoping to understand why the two main characters are behaving in a way that confuses even themselves.
Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a police detective who works in Busan and only sees his wife, a nuclear power plant worker residing in Ipo, once a week. He struggles with insomnia and only becomes excited when there’s a murder to solve. He and his lazy partner, Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo), encounter the perfect case when a retired immigration worker, Ki Do-soo (Yoo Seung-mok), is found dead at the foot of a mountain he often climbed. For a number of reasons, the main suspect is Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a migrant from China who works as a caretaker for old people. What starts as mere curiosity, because of her lack of grief and a surprising willingness to cooperate despite all the signs pointing at her, soon becomes romantic attraction. Hae-joon’s marriage has grown stale; he’s always looking for work-related excuses to avoid moving to Ipo, and seems to enjoy the thrill of the hunt for criminals.
As stated before, the main reason why Decision to Leave quickly becomes gripping is because of its interest in exploring how Hae-joon and Seo-rae’s minds work. And a clear answer is never given. As the investigation develops, the real puzzle is making sense of their true intentions and desires. They seem like two very different individuals, yet they catch each other’s attention in a way neither of them was anticipating. The game of cat-and-mouse becomes a secondary matter and provides just enough plot to keep the romance going.
Decision to Leave is also way funnier than Park Chan-wook’s two previous films, The Handmaiden and Stoker, which definitely were more serious stories. In a way, it recaptures some of that classic South Korean mix of genres and tones which is felt throughout his earlier works — even if he naturally leans towards messed-up tales of romance and revenge, the filmmaker can be quite funny. In this instance, the overall mood of the film is lighter in spite of some gnarly events. This ultimately helps Decision to Leave feel energetic at all times (something intensified by the playful audiovisual presentation) even when it overstays its welcome.
The film clocks at around 138 minutes that end up feeling closer to a weighty three-hour runtime more typical of a big fat crime thriller. There isn’t that much going on in Decision to Leave, and while it remains engaging from beginning to end, at some point you start to wonder whether the script is spinning its tires or building up towards a more memorable conclusion — it eventually does arrive, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that some scenes and story segments run for too long and/or push the same beats twice or even thrice. And I really can’t blame the director, as it’s easy to fall in love with the two protagonists’ complicated relationship — elevated by two electric performances by Park Hae-il and Tang Wei — and their walks and drives around foggy locations.
Park Chan-wook was joined once again by composer Jo Yeong-wook, who provides the melancholic — and often tense — touch Decision to Leave needed to sell its thorny romance and the ups and downs of the protagonists’ personal lives, which extend beyond what they’re experiencing in private. The director also reunited with editor Kim Sang-beom, who keeps things as breezy as possible and worked in tandem with cinematographer Kim Ji-yong (A Bittersweet Life, Ground Zero) to craft something special. There was a difficult balance to strike in this film between the passion of the central romance and the cold of everything surrounding it, and the images perfectly convey the complexities of each space between the script’s lines.
Decision to Leave is an easy recommend for anyone enthralled by its deceptively simple premise, and one of the most captivating dramas of the year hands down. However, a handful of recurrent excesses stop it from reaching true excellence and walking alongside the filmmaker’s finest works.
The film will arrive in theaters in the US and Canada on October 14. UK and Ireland will get it October 21, with previews from October 15. Other territories are receiving it via streaming or through limited theatrical releases.
Francisco J. Ruiz is that guy who has watched Jurassic Park a thousand times and loves Star Wars. His hunger for movies is only matched by his love for video games. He graduated in English Studies from the University of Malaga, in Spain. As he keeps writing about what he enjoys (and doesn’t) for websites all over, he’s continuing his studies.