A cop falls disastrously for the woman he is certain killed her own husband in Park Chan-wook’s first film since 2016’s The Handmaiden. Decision to Leave is an erotic noir mixing elements of the “useless cops” comedy of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder with the romantic obsession of Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express and adding byzantine, gothic plotting that’s all Park’s own.
It wouldn’t work as well as it does without the presence of Tang Wei, playing a femme fatale of a noirish stripe – slinky, possibly dangerous, magnetically attractive – and the grieving widow of a much older husband who’s died in a bizarre rock climbing accident.
Is Seo-rae grieving enough though? Or even at all? It matters not. Once Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) claps eyes on her he is lost. It’s instantly obvious to the detective’s hot-headed sidekick, Soo-wan (Go Kyung-po), who notices that his tightwad boss has sprung for a high-end sushi takeaway for the widow while he’s questioning her. In a continuation of that scene, Park reinforces the feeling with a show-don’t-tell scene of the cop and his witness finishing their meal in the interview room, then, entirely in lock step, tidying up the detritus and wiping down the table with not a word spoken. It’s sex done as housework. On the other side of the two-way mirror, Soo-wan and his colleague exchange a meaningful look.
Maybe Seo-rae is lost too. In true noir style, she’s less of an open book than he. The fact that she is Chinese and he Korean means more noise on the line. And over the following couple of hours of our time, and weeks/months of his, as he goes to places he shouldn’t, professionally, personally, ethically, we’re never sure what’s going on at her end. Is she a killer or just a woman who’s unlucky in love? OK, if you’ve watched this film you will argue with that sentence, but let’s agree that Park keeps the question open for a long, long time.
Park is best known for his trio of Vengeance movies – Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance – which are also tales of obsession, if looked at from that direction. Since he wound that trilogy up in 2005 his plotting has become more sinuous, more layered, less tightly focused (if you’re being unkind), and in films like I’m a Cyborg, Thirst, Stoker and The Handmaiden Park’s gothic inclinations started heading off in a different direction, one Douglas Sirk would recognise.
Is Decision to Leave even “about” anything? A magnicificent obsession, maybe, to borrow the title from Sirk’s most unhinged movie? Or is that merely a peg on which to hang a stupendous-looking art-for-art’s-sake confection, an orgy of visual film-making? Park’s shots are elaborately worked out and as well as being individually gorgeous, are constantly referencing other moments in the film, with visual callbacks and mirroring, back-references, and depth charges dropped to explode later on. In some scenes he’s using Tang Wei and Park Hae-il more as mannequins than actors.
It sounds heavy going but it isn’t, because his leads make their characters compelling to watch even in their guardedness, and because Park sprinkles moments of humour through the film. Like the way Hae-jun’s fellow cops seem so physically out of shape. Or the strange obsession with footwear. Midway through some conversation between Seo-rae and Detective Hae-jun, Park swings his camera down to their feet to take a look at what they’re both wearing for that encounter. Is it meaningful that he starts out in good handmade leather shoes but winds up in black trainers? Discuss.
Ultimately a film in which a cop and his murder suspect find themselves intimately connected isn’t at all unusual, but Park’s treatment is. By the end, there are plenty of “hang on, what about?” threads left entirely dangling and by way of a big mad finish Park gives us a nightmare reworking of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling around together in the surf in From Here to Eternity – more obsessive madness. Buckle up.
Decision to Leave – watch it/buy it at Amazon
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