Park Chan-wook’s new movie has invoked comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock and Wong Kar-Wai. But the film that Decision to Leave resembles the most is the one directed by Park Chan-wook.
Unpredictable outcomes, askew humour, a heavily stylised approach that includes a vivid colour palette, gasp-worthy cinematography, frontal framing that puts characters squarely in the middle of the frame and abrupt editing transitions – Decision to Leave has all of Park’s signature flourishes, but with one crucial difference.
Chasteness thumps at the heart of Park’s Cannes-feted amour fou, which is out on MUBI. The graphic violence and aestheticised sex that are trademarks of the South Korean director’s films – the Vengeance trilogy that includes Oldboy, The Handmaiden – have been jettisoned for a romance that harks back to classic noir cinema with a dash of screwball comedy. Among the film’s winking jokes is the casting of Tang Wei, known for her soul-baring explicitness in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007), as a buttoned-up femme fatale.
The screenplay, by Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong, is about both seeing and feeling. Ineffable emotions develop between a detective who yearns for a satisfactory shut-eye and the woman who makes every one of his senses come alive. Hae-Jun (Park Hae-il) is the insomniac detective beloved in pulp fiction. Married for 16 years to nuclear reactor employee Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun), Hae-Jun falls at first glance for Seo-rae (Tang Wei), whose husband has fallen off a mountain to his death.
Seo-rae, a Chinese woman married to a South Korean, has a solid alibi for what might be a murder. The fastidious Hae-Jun finds himself hopelessly attracted to a woman who might not be who she says she is. The surveillance involved in Hae-Jun’s detective work leads to a fetishistic-voyeuristic obsession that consumes both the hunter and the hunted.
Form is everything in a film with a wispy and eventually wobbly plot. Park’s sustained playfulness – which has transformed generic subjects into dazzling displays of cinematic bravura – reaches its limits as the romantic entanglement takes a new turn. The desexualised longing between grown-ups in the mood for more guts the film’s emotional core.
Yet, Decision to Leave invites us to stay on with mesmerising visuals and high-calibre performances. Despite a handful of characters, the movie is mainly a two-hander between two beguiling characters and two fabulous actors.
The chemistry between Tang Wei and Park Hae-il sustains the 139-minute film narrative through its plotting ups and downs. In Park Hae-il’s bleary eyes and Tang Wei’s inscrutable gaze lies an entire saga of unsanctioned desire and desperate penitence. Bound to each other by a crime but separated by duty and language, the lead actors movingly communicate the remorse that is a necessary accomplice of the poorly-timed romance.