A detective finds himself falling for his murder suspect, who is fingered for killing her husband. If that sounds like a plot ripped straight from an Alfred Hitchcock film, that’s because it’s textbook Park Chan-wook. The Korean director has been taking inspiration from Hitchcock for much of his career, one defined by twisty mysteries and perverse thrillers that the Master of Suspense likely could never have fathomed. Park’s latest is perhaps the director’s most Hitchcockian in the most crucial aspects, though also more subdued compared to his track record. Decision to Leave is decidedly tamer than some of the titles one might think of when they hear the name Park Chan-wook, and those only looking for another Oldboy will find themselves sorely disappointed.
Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is an overworked detective who is—in true clichéd, noir form—married to his job more than to his actual wife. The latter lives in quiet, foggy Iso while the “youngest detective in the country’s history” works weeks in Busan, where the crime and murder that sustains him runs rampant. The couple tends to talk about how to keep their marriage lively instead of actually acting upon it. Hae-jun’s wife (Lee Jung-hyun) relays helpful facts about the health benefits of having regular sex, suggesting that they commit to “doing it” once a week. Still, Hae-jun spends more time on stake-outs than in his own bed due to insomnia, which plagues him as a symptom of his pile of unresolved cases. Concurrently with another active case, Hae-jun finds himself adding another crime to his growing folder: A mountain-climber who fell tragically to his demise.
Though by all appearances an accident (despite the late climber’s proficiency), the mountaineer’s much younger Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), quickly elicits suspicion from Hae-jun and his hot-head partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-Pyo). Park introduces the film’s femme fatale in the most unassuming way: Camera on Hae-jun, with her measured voice off-screen as she enters the morgue to identify her deceased husband. In that moment, Seo-rae could have been any other grieving widow to Hae-jun; just another meaningless piece in the growing puzzle of his unsolved crimes. But when she begins to talk about her husband, she seems to let her feelings bleed into her words. She tells the detective she always suspected one of his trips would kill him “at last.” At last? What an odd thing to say about your lover’s death.
Still, Hae-jun is quick to excuse her behavior. If he died, he tells Soo-wan, he assumes his wife would have been expecting it to happen, just as Seo-rae expected it of her husband. Seo-rae is pegged as the murder’s prime suspect, but Hae-jun’s further scrutiny of the woman becomes antithetical to his actual investigation. His stake-outs of her are an intimate ritual in which he slowly grows closer to the recent widow, visualized by Park superimposing Hae-jun in scenes with Seo-rae as he calls her or observes her from afar. Even after observing her swiftly returning to her job as an elderly caregiver and removing her wedding ring, and learning that she had an apparent motive (abuse), Hae-jun is reluctant to lay blame—though eager to continue “investigating.” When Hae-jun brings in Seo-rae for further questioning, he indulges in an expensive sushi dinner for the two of them. At one point in this same scene, Park showcases one of the many clever camera tricks in a film full of them: He frames Hae-jun and Seo-rae both in reality and in the reflection from the interrogation room’s one-way window. Barely perceptible, Park subtly adjusts the rack focus multiple times, so that the real Hae-jun speaks to the reflection of Seo-rae, and vice-versa.
Though Seo-rae’s alibi checks out and she is otherwise exonerated, Soo-wan is increasingly frustrated by his superior so clearly under the spell of infatuation with this woman. If she were a man, would Hae-jun be so soft on her? Hae-jun counters Soo-wan’s hypothetical: Would she even be a suspect without the stigma of being a foreigner with an older husband?
Hyper-stylized, surprisingly funny and a little convoluted, at its heart, Decision to Leave is a tragic story about love, trust and, of course, murder. Arguably, Decision to Leave is more of a romance than anything else; the crime/mystery aspect of the narrative is the least interesting part, though one could assume that’s entirely intentional. While not negligible, the crime is more of a conduit through which the real meat of the story, the relationship between Hae-jun and Seo-rae, is catalyzed and slowly evolves. Their romance is dependent upon requited longing and looming, unresolved threat—the kind of threat that fuels Hae-jun’s sleepless life, the kind that he can’t live without.
Decision to Leave wears its heart loudly and proudly on its sleeve, a welcome attitude for a film in 2022. But the maximalism of both the technical style and scale of the romance works for and against the film in equal measure. The profound yearning between the characters and potential eroticism from that kind of unexecuted connection is so overt that it occasionally loses itself. Yet it very much serves the clearly intended grandeur and excess of the romance’s emotional journey. At every turn, the camerawork and cinematography are working to keep the film beautiful, surprising, visually interesting—nearly to a fault, as the sheer lavishness of the form threatens to battle with the melodrama until they both cancel each other out. What I mean is, the film has a lot of everything, but still feels like it’s missing something very crucial. It’s perhaps worth noting that Park’s longtime DP, Chung Chung-hoon, is curiously absent, replaced here by Kim Ji-yong.
Nevertheless, from the string-centric score to the noir archetypes, to the themes of romance, betrayal, obsession and voyeurism, Decision to Leave is Park’s most clear evocation of Hitchcock to date. Because of this, it becomes somewhat evident where the story will go, even when things take a turn. But the familiarity of the crime narrative reads as intentionally superficial, a vehicle for a more unconventional exploration of the standard detective/femme fatale romance which has laid the foundation for Park’s own sumptuous spin. While not Park’s best work, nor a masterpiece, Decision to Leave is an extravagant and hopelessly romantic thriller that weaves past and present into something entirely its own.
Director: Park Chan-wook
Writer: Park Chan-wook, Jeong Seo-kyeong
Starring: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Release Date: October 14, 2022
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.