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‘Decision to Leave’ (review)

Decision to Leave is a 2022 Korean romantic mystery film directed by celebrated auteur Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden) and starring Tang Wei (Lust/Caution) and Park Hae-il (Memories of Murder). The film won Park the Best Director Award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is being released in America on both streaming and physical formats by MUBI.

Decision to Leave forms a loose trilogy in Park’s work along with Thirst and The Handmaiden of thrillers that plumb the depths of human lust and attraction.

Park Hae-il plays Hae Jun, a veteran police detective whose insomnia is beginning to damage his hold on reality. His wife, Jung-An, works at a power plant and their jobs mean they can only see one another once a week. When Hae Jun investigates the climbing death of an immigration official he begins to suspect the victim’s beautiful Chinese wife, Sao-Rae (Tang Wei), of murder.

As the evidence mounts, he becomes viscerally attracted to his prime suspect at first in fantasies and then openly.

The film’s third act is too dependent on an escalating series of twists and reversals to continue the synopsis beyond that point.

To be honest, if all you know about the film going into the film is that synopsis you’d be forgiven for wondering what the big deal is.

After all, these kinds of moves were old hat in the thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s, but as with all of Park’s films the devil is in the details. The film drops you into the shattered stream of consciousness of the insomniac detective, his fantasies and micro-nightmares as he loses consciousness without warning and then congeals into focus when Tang Wei’s character enters the story. Psychologically, we are the detective woken up from half-dreams and into reality by our animal attraction to this beautiful, mysterious, possibly dangerous, woman.

The film has been repeatedly compared to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and that’s mainly due to its structure where what seems to be the climax of the story reveals a hidden third act with its own major twist. Thematically the films are very different, perhaps even diametrically opposed. Vertigo was about the human capacity to allow past relationships to inform upon present ones– to reward and punish our current lovers for the pain or pleasure given to us by our old ones.

To remake them mentally into the image of what we can never have– the past.

On the other hand, Decision to Leave upon first viewing seems to me to be about the irrational power of attraction itself and how it may ebb and flow without our understanding or consent. The characters in Vertigo are carried to extreme psychological states, for sure, but there’s an underlying logic; a rationality, even, that underpins all their decisions and that twists serve to reveal.

Decision to Leave instead surprises us by showing us that characters we believed to be canny manipulators are also subject to the irrational need to be wanted. The seducer finds themselves longing for their victim with all the burning passion that they calculated to instill.

How much this all works for you is down to the leads, and they rise admirably to the challenge. Park Hae-il plays the vulnerability of man allowing himself, at first, and then being unable to stop the process, to be shattered with grace and subtle humor. There’s a scene involving a cell phone app (you’ll know it when you see it) where the weight of all the film’s action falls upon his shoulders and he’s just fantastic. Tang Wei, though, is the star of the show: a gorgeous sphinx whose simple gestures and lack of fluency in Korean bely a deep understanding of how to manipulate everyone around her. She was amazing in Ang Lee’s Lust/Caution years ago, and she’s matured into one of the smartest actresses in the world. This is a bravura performance.

Though the film has mostly received acclaim, I’ve seen some criticism about the length and pacing of Decision to Leave and I think that’s due as much to the density of the material as it is the length. We’ve unfortunately entered an era of film “criticism” where any film longer than two hours must somehow justify its existence as if the viewer is being charged extra.

Decision to Leave clocks in around 2 hours and 20 minutes, and from its opening shot it forces you to be actively watching, to be paying attention. I think it’s that quality that is causing some consternation– that it cannot be easily qualified into a neat genre box and half watched until the “good parts” come on, that it demands active thought for its duration.

I can’t complain because it rewards that attention consistently with wonderful detail and a thoughtful story.

**** out of *****

*  *  *  *  *
Written by Jeong Seo-kyeong, Park Chan-wook
Produced and Directed by Park Chan-wook
Starring Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Lee Jung-hyun, Kyung-pyo,
Park Yong-woo, Kim Shin-young, Jung Yi-seo, Jung Young-Sook


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