Decision to Leave
Park Chan-wook’s latest is a carefully curated detective drama with a lackluster romance
Irrational relationships have been a focus and fascination of many filmmakers through history; how can, against all logic, emotions can turn the sanest of minds into mushy romantics. Such is the focus of Park Chan-wook’s latest film Decision to Leave (2022) for which he won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes festival.
Decision to Leave is a detective romance, following curated Busan detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) as he investigates a rock-climbing death. As he interviews the victim’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei) he becomes stricken with her, turning him into an obsessed man, unwilling to look into the more dubious background of Seo-rae.
Chan-wook expertly weaves a stream-of-consciousness editing style that has us flitting between scenes without clear cuts differentiating sequences. This along with his expert cinematography work, thanks to his collaboration with director of photography Ji-yong Kim, makes for a visually engrossing screen experience. The script, as well, is expertly crafted, juxtaposing character actions and emotions, and building itself up towards a supposedly devastating finale.
Chan-wook has always flirted with the noir and femme-fatale concepts within his films. His last film, The Handmaiden (2016) was a perfect example of his fascination with genre conventions mixed with character work. In Decision to Leave, it is the toxic attraction that becomes the thematic center of the narrative. The plot, like its main character, becomes as embroiled and obsessed with the central romance, making its execution crucial for the rest of the film to work.
It is in this core romance, between Hae-jun and Seo-rae, that the film falters. The casting is the principal culprit. Park Hae-il and Tang Wei simply have no chemistry whatsoever in their scenes, robbing viewers of the empathetic accompaniment that Decision to Leave relies on for its emotional stakes. As such, the flat interactions between the central characters begins to work against the narrative. As a result, the character of Hae-jun appears creepy and stalkerish as he follows and obsesses over Seo-rae, while their irrational actions and sabotage of their lives makes them appear silly and delirious. Most consequential of all, the Decision to Leave’s epilogue, crafted to pack a devastating punch, leaves you cold and indifferent; you simply can’t come around to caring about the fate of the characters, much less whether they end up together. Chan-wook ignores all the other sub-plots and side characters for this central romance, making its crumbling state bring down the greater potential of the entire film.
Decision to Leave is a fabulously crafted film, with passionate directing; sadly, an overreliance on the central romance makes the film depend on two sparkless performances that devolve the story into a cheap soap opera. Despite this melodramatic result, Chan-wook delivers another visually unique and alluring film, whose technical upsides just outweigh its performance drawbacks.