Cannes: Park Chan-wook’s murder-mystery may not be as opulent as “The Handmaiden,” but its bad romance cuts just as deep.
Here’s a sentence I never expected to write: The most romantic movie of the year (so far) is a police procedural. Then again, I wasn’t aware that “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook — whose operatic revenge melodramas have given way to a series of ravishingly baroque Hitchcockian love stories about the various “perversities” that might bind two wayward souls together — was making a detective thriller. In that case, the heart-stirring potential of the Korean auteur’s new detective saga would have been as obvious as the identity of its killer.
It’s a good thing, then, that “Decision to Leave” isn’t a whodunnit — as you’ll be able to discern from the pathetic effort its protagonist makes to solve his latest case. In fact, Park’s funny, playful, and increasingly poignant crime thriller is less interested in what Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) knows about his suspect than in how he feels about her.
By the same token, widowed caretaker Seo-rae (played with deliciously uncertain purpose by Chinese “Lust, Caution” star Tang Wei) seems less troubled by the idea that handsome detective Hae-joon might discover some evidence that implicates her in her late husband’s death than she is by the fear that he’ll stop looking for it. Instead of grieving the much older man who exploited her immigrant vulnerability and tattooed his initials into her flesh (before “falling” from the top of a strange mountain that has some personal significance to his wife’s family), the unflappable Seo-rae rewards the married detective’s infatuation with her own in return.
With the subtlety of a secretly requited crush, she dreads the day that Hae-joon will stop plying her with premium sushi boxes during their flirtatious interrogations, or staking out her Busan apartment on the nights when he should be at home in the hilly suburbs of Ipo, sleeping in bed with the pretty wife he’s bored of touching. Some of the people who live out there probably can’t stand the depressive sheet of gray clouds that stretches over the city every morning; others, perhaps, might only be at peace when their hearts are shrouded in mist.
And so the stage is set for Park to orchestrate a psychologically complex procedural about a proud detective brought to life by a crime he doesn’t want to solve, and a rootless murder suspect who’s mastered the art of leaving things behind. What starts as a rather open-and-shut case, however, soon evolves into something much richer, as Park leverages the killings (plural!) into a gripping investigation of a mystery that no police department could ever hope to solve: How does a romance survive between two people whose only hope for a future together depends upon them leaving the past unresolved?
It’s a mystery that Park unpacks with uncharacteristic restraint, if only because its ultimate payoff — more of a sinking realization than the kind of sudden bombshell that often detonated at the end of his earlier films — requires these characters to remain firmly lodged in the real world, where their adult longings might face adult consequences. Then again, labeling “Decision to Leave” as a “stripped-down” Park Chan-wook movie just because it doesn’t exude the same virtuosity of “Lady Vengeance” or “The Handmaiden” is like calling “Ambulance” a stripped-down Michael Bay movie just because there isn’t a scene where Mark Wahlberg fights a robot dinosaur: It’s true enough in context, but still wildly misleading.
By replacing his usual cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon with “A Bittersweet Life” director of photography Kim Ji-yong, and by diluting the sumptuousness of his melodramas with the more subdued textures of a true-crime story (albeit an entirely fictional one), Park has, for the first time since 2000’s “Joint Security Area,” made a movie that often feels as though it could’ve been made by somebody else. The illicit chemistry that percolates between Hae-joon and Seo-rae (and the actors who play them) would seem to be one of the few giveaways that it wasn’t, as Park’s jet-black sense of humor bleeds through the largely colorless interrogation room sets where much of the story’s first half takes place. The camerawork is never sloppy, and the production design never inexpressive — Ryu Seong-hie’s subtle flexes provide a bottomless ocean of detail, and the wallpaper in Seo-rae’s apartment alone evokes a tumultuous sea in search of calm — but “Decision to Leave” is seldom as spectacular as Park’s fans have come to expect.
It is, however, every bit as precise, even if the film’s intricacies are turned to a slightly lower volume than they’ve been in the past. “Decision to Leave” still offers the occasional gliding dolly shot and god’s-eye view. A rooftop chase sequence even relies on a flying rig to illustrate the extent of Hae-joon’s struggle to keep his feet on the ground. But the brunt of Park’s clockwork finesse is articulated through editing, blocking, and his ability to coax luscious detail out of the functional setups most filmmakers would surrender to the script.
Just as Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong’s script takes every advantage of Seo-rae’s foreignness, bisecting the character between her Korean heritage and Chinese birth, the film’s interview scenes isolate dialogue from bodies until what the characters are talking about is no longer the same thing as what they’re really saying. This is hardly the first time that someone has framed a witness interrogation as an act of seduction, but “Decision to Leave” is a far cry from “Basic Instinct.”
The potential of sex doesn’t move the needle for a white-collar detective as dignified as Hae-joon; what Park establishes here is the feeling of two unhappy people insinuating themselves into each other’s heads like a faint whisper that might help them fall asleep at night. Their unconsummated but increasingly transparent affair is built upon the special bliss that follows the first kiss at the end of a mutual courtship, when two people who like each other finally get to tell each other about all of the times they so desperately wanted to tell each other.
And then things get complicated. Mostly because of how the shared fantasy between Hae-joon and Seo-rae gives way to cold reality, but also because no crime story should ever rely quite this much on iPhones, Apple Watches, and the other ways that our personal devices betray our deepest secrets; in its own way, “Decision to Leave” depends on Apple products to an even greater degree than the short film Park famously shot on an iPhone in 2011. The director invariably finds a number of clever new ways to incorporate the technology into his narrative tension (and even make a salient point or two about the different kinds of evidence that people leave behind), but the anguish that keeps Hae-joon and Seo-rae together even — and especially — in absence is so pure and timeless that I often found myself wishing that Park had done more to treat it that way. A wish that, at least on first watch, might stem from a third act that seems a bit more complicated than it needs to be.
On the other hand, “Decision to Leave” is only able to stir up such unexpectedly immense emotions during its final moments because of the complications that Park creates for his characters along the way, which sink into Hae-joon and Seo-rae with the same visible weight that a wave of ocean water saturates into the dry sand it finds onshore. If “Decision to Leave” initially seems to be investigating how their feelings for each other can survive despite being so unresolved, a different picture emerges at high tide — one that suggests there’s no other way for them to stay alive. Love can last a lifetime, but longing never dies.
“Decision to Leave” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. MUBI will release it in theaters this fall.