Decision to Leave – Review

“Composed with great skill and executed with an exquisite and haunting fervor.”

by Ken Bakely

One could go on about how the plot of Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is, on some level, not terribly innovative. They wouldn’t be wrong, necessarily; it’s the kind of story that provides little in the way of surprise. But plot is generally overrated for matters such as these. Can a movie sell what it’s telling us? Can it engage and challenge as a work of art on its own merits? That’s what matters, and this one does it. Park’s sharp direction and his cast bring vibrant life to this story, of Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a Busan detective who is called to look into Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant who may have had something to do with her husband’s unusual death, a fall from a mountain which could plausibly be a murder, suicide, or accident. Her seeming lack of grief compounds suspicion. But for Hae-jun, having long been haunted by his work – and resultantly unattached to his wife, Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) – this is the case that truly breaks him. He has insomnia, and in his many waking hours, he becomes obsessed with Seo-rae, desperate for a connection and drawn to her beyond any professional measure. They strike up a bond that’s fraught with the obvious dangers in how they meet. Hae-jun can’t think of her as a killer. He considers himself a good detective who never lets a case go – he’s built his career’s unsolved mysteries into a disturbing shrine at his home. But the struggles that precede this investigation and the deeper ones that come as a result show the limitations of his hardened lifestyle, and an emptiness that he is desperate for Seo-rae to fulfill, even as it begins to overtake everything else in his mind.

Who is Seo-rae? From the start, little is known about the facts of her life and what, exactly, she thinks about all of this. We will learn much about her over the course of Decision to Leave, but it’s not about the reveals as much as it is the fascinating contours of the mystery they’re encased in. Park, working from a script he co-wrote with Jeong Seo-kyeong, takes great pleasure in drawing out each twist and turn, letting us get lost in the land of unreliable narrators and nonlinear storytelling. He enjoys the journey more than the destination; though if we are talking about the plot, it’s a story that – ironically for the note it ends on – opens and closes all its loops with great precision. What’s more astonishing still is how the proceedings unfold. Park, a filmmaker of such remarkable visual attentiveness, directs Decision to Leave with astonishing style. He and cinematographer Kim Ji-yong use a myriad of devices and shot setups, often to convey the mystery and distance felt between the two main characters. They’re shown talking through mirrors; they’re shown conversing in interrogation rooms in which one character is seen only on a grainy closed-circuit camera screen; they’re shown in shots that zoom through an otherwise shared space and transition between sequences set months apart. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, these would seem showy or obvious, but Park lets each scene and shot communicate in its own way.

There are so many other details I can go on about: I am particularly fascinated by one motif, in which Seo-rae occasionally speaks to Hae-jun through a translator app on her phone to make up for her tentative grasp on Korean, with the moments of silence as the device operates adding a unique kind of tension. It adds more to the breathy, jagged, and overwhelming relationship that forms between the two, brought to life by strong performances from Park and Hae-il and Tang Wei. In particular, Tang is particularly astonishing here – she works through the delicate dynamic between Seo-rae and Hae-jun with brilliant flexibility, with each new reveal incorporated effortlessly into the evolving picture of this character, who’s never as distant as she might seem. Hae-jun may surveil her and grow closer, telling himself that he’s simply doing his job before he seems to drop that pretense and crash into a never-ending spiral, but he never really gets to figure out all that much. The exact direction of where things wind up going is not surprising, per se, but after a point, it doesn’t really matter. With such stellar achievements on display in front of and behind the camera – special mention must be given to Jo Yeong-wok’s gorgeous string score – Decision to Leave is an atmospheric, noir-ish thriller that might not break new ground, but it’s composed with great skill and executed with an exquisite and haunting fervor.