South Korean master Park Chan-wook’s newest film after taking some time to make television (The Little Drummer Girl), Decision to Leave, which premiered in competition at Cannes, is a tedious tale that is certainly nowhere near being on the same level as some of his previous subversive masterpieces, The Handmaiden and Oldboy. This isn’t to say that it is a complete disappointment, adequately blending romance with noir to craft a procedural thriller about obsession akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo.
Set in Busan, Decision to Leave centers on Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), an insomniac homicide detective known for his late-night stakeouts and meticulous investigation methods. He soon finds himself struggling to solve the case of a dead man who plummeted to his death from a nearby mountain that initially appears to be a clean-cut accident. After speaking with the abusive man’s enigmatic wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese-speaking elder care nurse whose reaction (or lack thereof) to the news causes him to consider murder as the manner of death and her as a suspect despite having an alibi. As Hae-joon further looks into the facts of the case by following Seo-rae and digging into the details of her life, he becomes increasingly fascinated with her and begins to lose sight of the professional task at hand.
Weaving in and out of the unsolved case and a blossoming relationship between the two leads, Decision to Leave takes yet another turn when a second death occurs a few months later in the small seaside town of Ipo – where Hae-joon’s wife (Lee joong-hyun) lives and works – this time appearing to clearly be a murder, with the victim once again being someone married to Seo-rae. This raises even more massive red flags and therefore brings her back into Hae-joon’s orbit as they are faced with their feelings for each other.
Beneath the crime procedural premise that is placed at the forefront, Decision to Leave‘s most captivating aspect is the twisted love story between Hae-joon and Seo-rae. This is largely due to the fact that Park Hae-il and Tang Wei share such believably natural chemistry that makes it nearly impossible to not be fully engrossed in their romance. Park Chan-wook’s latest romantic entangling might not be as erotic or visceral as those present in his previous films – there isn’t a single sex scene between the pair – but its moments of longing and sensuality build an intimate narrative that serves as the film’s genuine emotional core and driving force.
Park Chan-wook has always been one to deliver stunning visuals, and here he crafts an alluring work with the help of cinematographer Ji-yong Kim. Equally fantastic is the haunting and mesmerizing score by Jo Yeong-wook. Tang Wei, who has been deserving of a role this great since her performance in Ang Lee’s 2007 spy thriller Lust, Caution, is fantastic as Seo-rae, effortlessly imbuing the femme fatale with charm and reserve. As the sharp-minded Hae-joon, Park Hae-il is phenomenal as he conveys the duality of his deep desire to be with Seo-rae and his duty to uncover the facts of the case and find the killer.
Although it is an overall beautifully shot and performed piece that tells a story full of seemingly complex intertwining narratives, Park Chan-wook and co-writer Jeong Seo-Gyeong lack the crucial elements that make for a compelling procedural. Characters are incorporated into the mix with little – if any – explanation as to why they exist and why they are introduced at a specific point, while the protagonists sometimes don’t feel as fleshed out and developed as they can be at some points. Hae-joon’s colleague (Go Kyung-pyo) and wife have a large presence at first but then get pushed too far into the sidelines in order to make room for an increasingly complicated plot.
Decision to Leave more often than not feels devoid of any intrigue or stakes that make up a good thriller – even one that functions as a slow-burn – but centers on a romance that makes up for the various missteps made along the extensive two and a half hour journey. With an absurdly long length and mystery that unravels at a leisurely pace while stuffing far too many events than it can handle, the final result is a half-baked plot and unengaging characters, albeit still a beautiful work. Park Chan-wook is capable of doing so much more than what he did here, and it’s clear that what’s on paper is holding Decision to Leave back from being something wholly special.