Plays at Cinematheque Nov. 4 to 16
Park Chan-wook, the South Korean provocateur behind operatic and ultraviolent psychological thrillers like Oldboy and The Handmaiden, is now 30 years into his career as a writer-director.
He’s earned international recognition for a style all his own, exquisitely crafting intricate and visually beautiful tales of action, anguish and vengeance. His newest feature, Decision to Leave, is a work by an artist whose hard edge has softened with age. That in and of itself isn’t a problem, but, unfortunately, it’s not the only part of Park’s signature style he’s leaving behind.
The film follows police detective HaeJun (Park Hae-il) as he investigates the mountain-climbing death of a middle-aged immigration official. The death seems like a suicide, but nagging bits of evidence hint that the deceased’s much-younger wife Seorae (Tang Wei), a mysterious Chinese exile, may have played a role. As Hae-Jun learns more about Seo-rae, he starts to fall in love with her, even as her emerging backstory paints an increasingly sinister picture.
Decision to Leave’s debts to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo are so clear – from the dogood detective falling for an enigmatic suspect, to the film being structured around the protagonist’s malady (in Hae-Jun’s case, insomnia) to the rooftop chases – that it sometimes feels like a soft remake of the earlier picture.
Doing a Hitchcock pastiche is something many directors try. Even in the case of less talented filmmakers (Brian De Palma built an entire career out of ripping off Hitchcock), watching them ape the distinctive style of Hitchcock is almost always less interesting than watching them work in their own characteristic hand. This is especially true of Park.
The film would go down easier if it had more of Park’s signature gusto. But he’s mellowed from the days of his gonzo revenge movies, so Decision to Leave feels like a double helping of vegetables when we really want bloody red meat. It isn’t helped by its 135-minute running time. The film loses all of its narrative momentum when the initial mystery gets “solved” at the halfway mark.
There’s still plenty to enjoy. I don’t think Park could make a bad film if he tried. His mastery of filmmaking craft is evident here. His two lead actors deliver heartfelt performances, and unlike many film noirs where the antihero/femme fatale relationship is obviously a doomed affair from the start, Decision to Leave seems genuinely interested in Seo-rae and Hae-Jun’s romance. It’s also brimming with classic lines of hardboiled noir dialogue like “Killing is like smoking cigarettes. Only the first time is hard.”
The film uses modern consumer technology in a way that feels realistic while still feeling appropriate to the genre, utilizing smartphones, GPS and voice notes to weave the mystery and ratchet up tension. But it never feels as smart or innovative as Park’s best films. There’s no shortage of critical love for Decision to Leave, but, sadly, I can’t say I share it.
Published in Volume 77, Number 09 of The Uniter (November 10, 2022)