DECISION TO LEAVE (2022)
Words by Jason Gorber at Cannes 2022
Director Park returns with a noir-inspired outing filled with his characteristic visual aplomb but its lurching pace derails this tale of a cop falling for his suspect
From the opening shots it’s clear that Park Chan-Wook has lost none of his visual mastery. There’s a calm, cool aesthetic on every frame, drawing the viewer into his latest film that tackles the concept of a cop falling in love with his suspect. Despite all these trappings of a tremendous filmmaker once again treading in areas he’s comfortable, in the end 'Decision to Leave' left me cold.
Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a sadsack cop, sleepless and obsessed with his unsolved murder cases. A success at a young age, he stalks the streets of Busan, observing suspects and trying to make order out of the chaos of crime. His wife (Lee Jung-hyun) lives in faraway Ipo working at a nuclear power plant, the exhausting drive and their friendly yet dispassionate relationship clearly evident.
Hae-joon is called to the scene of what first appears to be a climbing accident, only to surmise that foul play may potentially be involved. He narrows his focus on the widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a woman of Chinese descent and caregiver for the elderly who giggles when she stumbles over Korean vocabulary and phrasing. Beautiful, exotic, and somewhat distant, she seems to be inured to the death of her husband, leading Hae-joon into a tumultuous connection with this mysterious woman.
Thus unfolds a film that owes as much to film noir conventions as it does to a delicate romance, the sense of melancholy and longing baked into every frame. Yet while this delicate dance of tone worked so spectacularly in films like 'The Handmaiden' and even 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance', I found myself left adrift as the laconic pace and repetitive, predictable structure took hold. It’s as if the film never quite generates a rhythm, lurching somewhat uncomfortably from moment to moment without a clear sense of drive. Holding back on the intensity certainly assists with avoiding the melodramatic moments that often plague such offerings, yet it simply never coheres in a way that feels either discomfiting or truly engaging.
In strange ways there are echoes to the likes of 'Chungking Express', where similar dances of character and tone are at play. Yet while the richness of that film is encouraged by its playfulness along with the ennui, with 'Decision to Leave' it’s all a bit dour, so that you’re never entirely sure why the characters are so beguiled with one another. As the final scene demonstrates in one of the few bravura moments, this reticence and lack of communication is entirely the point, yet it doesn’t help fuel interest while the film actually unfolds.
Every Park Chan-wook film is worthy of consideration, and perhaps in time and on second viewing I’ll find more to dig out from the carved out sands of its construction. It feels at times as lost as it characters, but when it connects, as it surely will for some other viewers, they’ll be gifted by a work from one of the world’s most treasured filmmakers. Yet at this festival viewing I found it too flawed, too stilted, too far away from truly connecting on either an aesthetic or emotional basis. 'Decision to Leave' is by its title is presented as an answer to a question posed, yet there aren’t enough moments of actual introspection or productive dives into the psychology of these characters to warrant its 2hr 18min running time. Despite fleeting moments of brilliance, especially the last few moments, on the whole its magic simply didn’t work on me.