There was a time when Park Chan-wook was known for just one thing. He was the South Korean filmmaker behind The Vengeance Trilogy, consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the classic Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance. Park is too good of a director to ever allow himself to be pigeonholed and has expanded his repertoire considerably since then. The results don’t always work, just look at his messy English-language debut Stoker. But when Park is at the top of his game, like with films such as the bloody vampire flick Thirst and psychological thriller The Handmaiden, there are few better.
Park’s latest, the twisty procedural/erotic thriller Decision to Leave, falls somewhere in between. Extreme violence and obsession, two of Park’s trademarks, entangle the forbidden romance between detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a suspect in her husband’s “accidental” death. A married man in a passionless marriage to a woman he only sees on weekends, Hae-joon basically lives for his job. Stricken with insomnia, he also claims to be unable to sleep as long as he has unsolved cases. The wall of crime scene photos tells us this guy isn’t going to get any rest any time soon.
When Seo-rae enters his life, Hae-joon believes she isn’t the innocent widow she claims to be, but a cold, calculated murderer. Whatever she might be, Hae-joon has some secrets of his own hidden down deep. It’s Seo-rae who begins to slowly pull those things to the surface, and Hae-joon can’t get enough of being in her presence.
Obsession is often at the heart of Park’s movies, and Decision to Leave follows in those footsteps. But Hae-joon and Seo-rae are passionate about very different things in each other, although it’s never certain if what they see is real. Park puts a lot of attention on the eyes. We’re often taught not to trust our own eyes, but to look deeper because our sight can be clouded. The initial death scene has the man’s corpse covered with bugs, crawling over his wide-open eyes. Hae-joon suffers from dry eyes that he is constantly taking drops for, although it also sometimes appears he uses them to fake emotions he doesn’t truly feel.
Decision to Leave never takes off in a fully erotic direction. The romance between Seo-rae and Hae-joon is calculated, suspicious, and a game of cat & mouse. Admittedly, these are some of my favorite kinds of thrillers. I love watching a femme fatale unravel a man and twist him around her little finger. However, Park doesn’t keep things quite so easy to figure out. We’re rarely on stable ground when figuring out who is truly playing who. And at a running time of 138-minutes, Park is in no hurry to clear things up. Both characters have aspects that could mean nothing or everything. Seo-rae is Chinese and struggles with Korean, which could explain why she seems so dispassionate. But with Hae-joon she often employs a translator app, which is equally cold but more precise. She also takes care of elderly patients as a job, and ropes in Hae-joon to do the same, a subtle sign of his commitment to her.
While this is a true potboiler and slow burn, Decision to Leave isn’t Park’s tightest screenplay. The procedural aspects overrun much of the passionate side of the story, and various subplots complicate matters in a way that is counterproductive to our understanding of the core relationship. This becomes especially true in the final act, where a character makes a fateful choice that doesn’t quite add up, leaving the other awash in grief and guilt.
While it lacks the urgency of some of Park’s earlier work, Decision to Leave is a skillfully constructed expression of Park’s core themes and a compelling tragic romance story wrapped in a film noir mystery.
Decision to Leave is in select theaters now, expands nationwide on October 21st.