Decision to Leave(11/3/2022)

I don’t think I can say I’m a Park Chan-wook “day one” fan, like most non-Koreans who doesn’t go to festivals I didn’t really learn about him until 2005’s Oldboy, but I am the only person I know who actually saw that movie in theaters during its first run so I feel like I do have some street cred when it comes to the guy.  In fact he came along at pretty much the exact perfect time to be pretty entrenched in my cinematic upbringing.  I would have been a Junior in high school when Oldboy dropped and would have been in my senior year and early college as I explored his other slightly lower profile early films like JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance.  He was pretty much the great Asian cult movie director of my youth and his rise announced the rise of South Korean genre cinema as we know if today.  This isn’t to say I’ve loved all his work.  Those “Vengeance” movies are pricklier and less audience pleasing than Oldboy and he’s also made some movies that ended up being more minor genre exercises like I’m a Cyborg and That’s Okay and Thirst and I must say I didn’t really like his English language debut Stoker much at all.  His last movie The Handmaiden, however, was a real triumphant comeback as far as I was concerned so I’d say I went in about as excited as I’ve ever been for his long awaited follow-up Decision to Leave.

Decision to Leave is, at heart, a pretty classic noir detective story.  It begins with a Busan police investigator named Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) assigned to investigate the death of a man who fell off the edge of a local mountain.  He was a skilled climber and they know he made it to the top, so it seems unlikely to be an accident so maybe it was suicide or maybe it was murder.  Shortly into their investigation they meet his wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant to Korea who works at an elder care facility.  His partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) quickly suspects Seo-rae had something to do with the murder and there is evidence that points to her, but she has an alibi and Hae-jun does defend her.  Eventually the death is ruled a suicide and professionally Hae-jun moves on, but he can’t stop thinking about Seo-rae, which is complicated because Hae-jun is married and doesn’t seem particularly unhappy with his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun).  Still, Seo-rae intrigues him and she even offers him a strategy for overcoming the insomnia he suffers from.  But things from that old case keep nagging at him and he starts to wonder if his take on the death of her husband was wrong.

If you associate Park Chan-wook with the concept of “Asia Extreme,” a marketing slogan from the early 2000s that was used to sell Asian genre films that were “out there,” this film might disappoint.  This movie isn’t, like, wholesome or anything but its use of sex and violence is more conventional and “tasteful” than in Park’s other films.  At heart the film is a film noir, though aspects of it almost point more in the direction of the “erotic thriller” except that we never actually get any sex scenes between Hae-jun and Seo-rae despite the formula suggesting there should be.  Like Stoker the film is also something of a subtle deconstruction of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, though I won’t name which one so as to avoid spoilers.  At the film’s center is a love triangle where out detective is torn between the woman who’s good for him and the woman he desires, a dichotomy symbolized by the fact that his stable wife is constantly nagging him to quit smoking while his maybe mistress to be doesn’t give a damn if he smokes himself to oblivion.

The thing about this movie is that it’s maybe so steeped in archetypes that on a basic narrative level it suffers to really break new ground.  The freshness that is there mostly comes from Park’s direction and visual style.  The movie is so handsomely shot and mounted that it’s impossible not to respect, but Park’s style can be a double edged sword at times.  His movies often do run a touch on the long side and this one is no exception, I think it could have stood to lose about twenty minutes; it has a few too many sub-plots that distract from the main story and at times actually make it kind of difficult to follow.  So I’m left in an odd place with what exactly to think about this one.  On one hand, Park himself has pretty much never been more confident in his filmmaking and while I don’t really have any major complaints per se with the film’s screenplay it lacks the novelty of some of Parks more outlandish genre experiments and did not keep me guessing like his last triumph The Handmaiden did.  One could almost accuse this of being watered down Park for people who don’t want to see octopi get eaten alive or extended lesbian sex scenes and the like, but I also don’t want to downplay the film’s many virtues either.  This is worth seeing, it’s worth seeing for Park’s command of the camera and for some strong performances and for a story that does have at least a few twists and turns that keep things interesting.  That having been said, I feel like I’ve seen a hundred different takes on “noir” by this point that it maybe takes a little more than that to really floor me and I thought Park would be the one to give me that “little more” and I don’t think he did.
***1/2 out of Five

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