Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy; Joint Security Area) — Screenplay by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung (Lady Vengeance).
Since the release of Park Chan-wook’s 2016 period piece masterpiece The Handmaiden, longtime fans of his have had to wait quite a while until his next feature film. Since then he has co-written Lee Kyoung-mi’s The Truth Beneath, worked on short films with his brother, produced the Daveed Diggs-led series adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, and directed the underseen but quite strong limited series adaptation of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl. Six years is a long time to wait for a new film from such a gifted auteur. Now that I’ve finally had the chance to see his latest film, Decision to Leave, it brings me great joy to state that it was worth the wait. Decision to Leave, which earned Park Chan-wook the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, is one of his best films.
Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is a crime-romance thriller that follows the supposedly quite talented but definitely tortured insomniac Busan-based detective Hae-jun (played by Park Hae-il), as he tries to close a case involving the death of a retired immigration officer and climbing enthusiast, who is found at the foot of a mountain. When they interview his much younger Chinese wife, Seo-rae (played by Tang Wei), she becomes a suspect in the case, due to the fact that she displays no surprise about his death and very few signs of grief. Hae-jun, who only gets to see his wife on weekends because she works at a power plant in another city, starts to conduct nightly stakeouts outside Seo-rae’s apartment, and he gradually starts to become more and more obsessed with, and even infatuated by, the widowed suspect. Much to his amazement, these stakeouts move him so much that he even starts to sleep right. Passion is brought back into his life by this work infatuation, and soon their relationship grows so fast that she even helps him to solve another crime.
Fans and cineastes will note immediately that this film sees the stylish South Korean auteur firing on all cylinders visually, but, at the same time, one could say that this film sees Park deal with his story and themes in a more mature — but no less modern — way. His appetite for thriller-esque visual storytelling is still there, and the film is jam-packed with so much visual flair that it almost feels like Park Chan-wook missed putting his stamp on feature films. But while Park Chan-wook films have previously featured a lot of violence, eroticism, and blood, Park Chan-wook’s latest holds back. There is even a line about how his main character is sickened and frightened by blood (specifically the smell of it), and Park Chan-wook’s depiction of Hae-jun’s sex life makes it feel like a chore that he must do for the health benefits. At one point, Hae-jun’s wife remarks that he’s only happy when he gets to solve a murder, which is a statement that makes him guffaw. In this regard, I would argue that Decision to Leave feels a lot like a mid-life crisis movie, and I wonder how personal it is to Park Chan-wook, as his protagonist is a man whose heart only seems to beat when in the presence of, or when watching, what essentially boils down to ‘a work wife,’ who likes to be watched by him (this reading would then argue that, to Park, she is the audiovisual medium and his stylistic traits). Whether a misreading or not, I am nevertheless so fascinated by how this can essentially be read as a deeply personal film about a director who needs the thrill of films and filmmaking to function.
When I say that this feels like a more mature film, this should absolutely not be interpreted as if I think this film is tame. Only a select few films from 2022 have been this engrossing to me. I am obsessed with every inch of this film, and I have seen it three times at the time of writing. I’ve already noted how his sense of style runs through the film and how his stamp is all over this film, but I want to stress how he communicates both the modern setting but also this infatuation, which I described as the main character ‘falling in lust’ in my review notes. As for it being modern, smartphones play an integral part in both the unraveling of the central revelation, but also in the visual language of the film. There are times when we even look up at Hae-jun from the perspective of his phone. As for the infatuation, there are these extremely exciting shots where Hae-jun looks at Seo-rae from afar with binoculars, but then it will cut back to him, and his binoculars, and zoom out and reveal him next to Seo-rae, almost as if to suggest he feels a closeness to her and that he is hyper-aware of her. There is also this really neat insert shot of her eating ice cream when someone mentions suicidal tendencies to him. It is a wildly fascinating film and this is in large part thanks to the impeccable visual trickery.
At the heart of the film are the two truly outstanding performances from Park Hae-il and Tang Wei. Park Hae-il is excellent as the tired detective who thinks he knows himself, but who is actually blind to the depths of his obsession with Seo-rae. Tang Wei’s performance as Seo-rae is something really special and intoxicating. Tang Wei truly gives one of the best performances of 2022, and it is a crime that the larger awards ceremonies have chosen not to even nominate her for her exquisite work.
I like to focus more on a film’s shortcomings as I reach the end of my reviews, and while I do have one thing about the film’s ending that I’m not quite certain works on a character level, it is difficult to truly discuss without revealing spoilers that could hurt your first viewing of the film. I will say that even though I am of two minds as to whether or not this specific element of the film’s ending is true to a certain character, I do think it is a really rich and haunting plot development that works on a narrative level.
Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is one of the very best films of 2022. It oozes style and is so wildly impressive that it regularly made my jaw drop because of how inventive, deliberate, and playful Park’s visual storytelling is here. It features some of the best cinematography and editing I’ve seen in recent years. It is also a really well-written and acted crime thriller that morphs into somewhat of a romance film. It is an extremely fascinating watch thanks to an auteur who is at the top of his game, as well as performances that will make you want to watch and rewatch every line delivery. One of the most cited Roger Ebert sayings states that the very best films should seem new every time you watch them. Decision to Leave is that kind of film.
9.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.