Not counting his six-episode TV series in The Little Drummer Girl, it has been six years since we last saw Park Chan-Wook direct the lush period-set erotic drama in The Handmaiden. His latest movie, Decision to Leave, has received glowing reviews since it first premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which was nominated for Palme d’Or and Best Director. While the movie lost the former to Triangle of Sadness, Park Chan-Wook took home the latter, making it his first time ever to receive the coveted Best Director award.
Having seen some of his impressive directing efforts such as Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), Thirst (2009) and the aforementioned 2016 movie, I have a high expectation for Decision to Leave. The story — credited to Park Chan-Wook and Jeong Seo-Kyeong — mixes romantic thriller, film noir and police procedural with a heavy influence on Hitchcockian style sound interesting enough: An insomniac detective (Park Hae-il’s Hae-jun) tries to solve the case of a dead climber, who fell to his death from a well-known climbing rock.
At first, it seems like an accident but Hae-jun soon suspects the climber’s death possibly has to do with his Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei). She can speak Korean, even though she sometimes needs to rely on a translator app to communicate. Hae-jun finds out she works as a caregiver who takes care of the elderly and as his investigation deepens further, he begins to fall for her.
A detective who falls in love with a female prime suspect. One that is especially enigmatic and beautiful sure reminds me of Basic Instinct. But Park Chan-Wook isn’t interested to go Paul Verhoeven’s filmmaking approach when comes to graphic sex and violence — something that the director is also famously known for his provocative visuals. Instead, he chose to tone down his usual style for a change, especially if compared with his past works. That means there are little sex and violence involved and interestingly enough, you won’t find a single sex scene between Hae-jun and Seo-rae other than sharing a kiss. Such a move might disappoint (most) fans expecting Park Chan-Wook to revisit his familiar artistically daring and lurid cinema.
And yet, Decision to Leave remains sneakily erotic without all the usual physical scenes, thanks to the combination of Park Chan-Wook’s subtle direction and Kim Ji-Yong’s alluring cinematography. All the longing, gazes and gestures feel intimate even as simple as a scene of Hae-jun massaging the lotion on Seo-rae’s hand. The movie may have been stylistically restrained but that doesn’t Park Chan-Wook completely abandons his unique way of shooting his movie. This includes his editing choice that frequently and seamlessly jumps from one scene to another in an abrupt manner, even though I have to admit it takes some time to get used to. There are a few other stunning set pieces too, notably the well-staged rooftop chase scene.
The cast, particularly the principal leads including Park Hae-il and the scene-stealing Tang Wei are great. But only to a certain extent since the movie doesn’t really make a valid point as to why we should care about either of these characters. The supporting cast feels more like placeholders here, where Go Kyung-Pyo and Lee Jung-Hyun are disappointingly relegated to respectively thankless roles as Hae-jun’s partner, Soo-wan) and wife.
And despite the promising storyline, Decision to Leave lingers too long at 138 minutes. The so-called thriller isn’t as intriguing as I hope for, coupled with the dense plotting that seemingly wanted us to play catch-up. I’m not sure about others who have seen the movie but there are times it feels frustrating to see Park Chan-Wook shoving too much information within his intricately-woven narrative, only to end up with little clarity. He also includes his signature pitch-black humour except for this time, most of them are rather a hit-and-miss affair.
Frankly, I really wanted to like Decision to Leave as much as near-universal praises (at least at the time of writing) have led me to believe in the first place. Too bad for all the arresting visuals and some worthwhile moments, the movie still feels like a missed opportunity, especially given the fact that Park Chan-Wook is calling the shots here.