A police procedural gets the Hitchcock treatment in Decision to Leave, which came to this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival after playing in competition at Cannes and winning the Best Director prize for Chan-wook Park (Oldboy, The Handmaiden).
That prize was deserved: Decision to Leave is an immaculately-crafted, beautifully-realized piece of cinema that overcomes some storytelling contrivances to deliver a startling tale that satisfies on multiple levels. Those seeking Zodiac-style realism in a modern detective story may leave this one disappointed, but others will undoubtedly fall under its glorious spell.
Decision to Leave opens as no-nonsense detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) tracks a murderer through the city streets of Busan with aggressive younger partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo). A hopeless insomniac, Hae-joon is more at home on night stakeouts in the city than with his domineering wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) in their residence in a smaller coastal town.
Hae-joon’s itch for a complex mystery is scratched with the discovery of a body at the base of a picturesque, impossibly tall mesa that makes for some of Decision to Leave’s most memorable compositions. The deceased man, an amateur mountain climber, would seem to have fallen while climbing the steep cliff face, but Hae-joon suspects something more sinister at play.
Into the picture comes the deceased man’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant who works as a home care worker and almost immediately bewitches the detective with her choice of words in Korean… among other charms. He orders the luxury sushi set for her during an initial interrogation, a detail that is amusingly not lost on Soo-wan.
And as Hae-joon stakes out Seo-rae at her apartment and on the job as a home care worker for the elderly, he begins to suspect her of involvement in her husband’s death… and also develops a deep and evolving empathy for her. But she appears to have an air-tight alibi, and Hae-joon’s boss is eager to wrap up this case as what it appears to be while more urgent investigations take precedence.
But that’s only the beginning of this complex, twist-laden tale, which adds an entire act onto what would have been the finale for any other film. Chan-wook is known for his elaborately-plotted films, but Decision to Leave might top his previous films in that regard; there’s rarely a moment that we know where this narrative is headed next, right up to the devastating finale.
There’s an artificial quality to the story at the heart of Decision to Leave – every last piece fits neatly into the puzzle – but this one is so beautifully-crafted and carefully composed that audiences will be just as enraptured with it as Hae-joon is with Seo-rae.
The evolving relationship between the leading pair is at the heart of the movie, and both Hae-il and Tang Wei (best known to western audiences for her work in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and Michael Mann’s Blackhat) give commanding performances in the lead. Chan-wook keeps the pair in steady, elegant focus throughout, giving performers a chance to subtly develop their characterizations throughout the film.
In the best real-life police procedurals, like David Fincher’s Zodiac, there’s an unnerving sense of ambiguity as clues lead to dead ends and red herrings. That’s not the case in Decision to Leave, where every small detail, no matter how insignificant it seems at the time, will be revealed to have some great meaning by the end of the film.
This kind of storytelling seems to have gone out of fashion in recent years, but Decision to Leave is a master-class in Hitchcock-level filmmaking from a director at the very top of his game. This one has enough to delight both cinephiles and wider audiences, and like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, will likely be competing for some major awards come next spring.
Decision to Leave is now playing in Prague cinemas. Check listings at Edison Filmhub to catch an English-subtitled print.