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A Detective Falls for a Suspect in Park Chan-wook's Stunning Noir 'Decision to Leave'

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Published November 9, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


A detective gets way too close to a murder suspect in Park's visually entrancing thriller. - COURTESY OF MUBI
  • Courtesy of MUBI
  • A detective gets way too close to a murder suspect in Park's visually entrancing thriller.

Do you miss the high-concept adult thrillers that flourished at the box office in the 1980s and '90s? Blame the streaming revolution for all but pushing those movies out of theaters, though you'll still find scads of them on Netflix, Hulu and the like.

Or look beyond the mainstream theatrical releases to the art house. If there were ever a thriller that justified leaving your couch to see it on the big screen, it's Decision to Leave, the latest from groundbreaking South Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), which won him Best Director at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Catch it at the Savoy Theater and Merrill's Roxy Cinemas.

The deal

Homicide detective Jang Hae-joon (Park Hai-il) has an exciting job, an affable rapport with his younger partner and a happy marriage to the loving wife (Lee Jung-hyun) he sees on weekends. But something's wrong: He can't sleep.

Hae-joon and his partner investigate the death of a climbing enthusiast who fell from a mountaintop — or was pushed. The victim's much younger widow, Chinese native Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), is a natural suspect: Her husband was an immigration officer who helped her gain Korean citizenship, and he regularly left bruises on her. But her alibi seems airtight.

Drawn to the mysterious Seo-rae, Hae-joon stakes out her home and watches her obsessively. When she turns the tables and begins tailing him, the consequences of their collision threaten every aspect of his carefully ordered life.

Will you like it?

Good thrillers dole out information artfully, keeping us on the edge of our seats as we solve the case along with the detective. But rarely does a thriller contain as much densely layered visual information as Decision to Leave. The 139-minute film moves at a fast clip, bombarding us with striking compositions in which nothing feels random.

When Hae-joon and his wife consult a doctor about his insomnia, for instance, a mural behind them depicts a jellyfish-like form. We instantly recall an earlier scene in which Seo-rae — who's a nurse — soothed Hae-joon to sleep by guiding his breathing and telling him to imagine himself as a jellyfish. And we realize no doctor can supply the cure he needs for his midlife crisis.

The temptation of a detective by a femme fatale is the oldest noir plot in the book. But Park and cowriter Chung Seo-kyung explore it in ways that defy our expectations. While most thrillers in this vein amp up the eroticism — think of the notorious interrogation scene in Basic Instinct — this one takes a more relaxed and sometimes even deliciously comic approach to depicting the two principals' burgeoning attraction.

Seo-rae's bad-girl insouciance is a constant provocation to Hae-joon's circumspection, and the actors make their chemistry palpable. Yet the two rarely touch. He expresses his affection by feeding her, buying her premium sushi on the police department's dime. (Later, when he's angry at her, she gets a corn dog.) She talks him to sleep, but she doesn't hop into bed with him. It's a weirdly slow-paced and wholesome romance, considering its inherent threat to everything that Hae-joon believes he stands for — professionalism, loyalty, dignity.

A gentle passion isn't what viewers expect from Park, who didn't shy away from sex or violence in his previous films. But the director never lets us think he's gone soft. On the contrary, he and cinematographer Kim Ji-yong use those bold, ever-shifting visuals to keep us off-kilter, sullying every cozy moment between the couple with unease.

Some shots offer jarringly impossible perspectives — from inside a phone screen or a dead man's eye, for instance. (The power of smartphones to serve as surrogates for the human eye and voice is a running theme.) Other shots have a subtle wrongness that we may not notice immediately, such as an interrogation scene in which actors repeatedly slip out of focus while their mirror images remain in focus, or vice versa.

Park also uses hyperreal staging to bend space and time and enact the characters' desires: For instance, he cuts from Hae-joon watching Seo-rae from outside her apartment to him standing right beside her. It takes us an instant to recalibrate and realize he's only there in his imagination.

In a world where reality is so slippery, can Hae-joon trust his own instincts? It's a time-honored psychological thriller theme, and one might argue that Decision to Leave is basically just Basic Instinct or Jagged Edge with another plot wrinkle (though it's a sizable wrinkle).

The movie's visual brilliance puts it on another level, though, perhaps even justifying comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. Viewers who are dependent on subtitles may sometimes struggle to keep up with Decision to Leave, but if they're like me, they'll be invigorated by the sheer level of aural, visual and textual stimulation — and crave a second viewing.

If you like this, try...

Lady Vengeance (2005; Kanopy, Tubi, Plex, Pluto TV, rentable): Park made his name in American art houses with violent, stylish thrillers such as Oldboy (2003) and this film about a falsely accused woman who leaves prison raring for revenge.

The Handmaiden (2016; Kanopy, Amazon Prime Video, rentable): For his preceding thriller, Park adapted Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, changing its setting from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea. More overtly erotic than Decision to Leave, this film also has a strong political subtext.

Vertigo (1958; rentable): The stylistic boldness and romanticism of Decision to Leave have drawn comparisons with Hitchcock's classic.