You don’t have to look too far into Park Chan-wook’s filmography to know that if his name is attached to the project, you’re in for a wild ride. Viewers are essentially trained to scour every frame looking for what’s actually happening beneath the surface. We scan for clues that will tell us when and where the twist will come, and it’s what makes Chan-wook such a unique and intriguing filmmaker. And it’s also what makes “Decision to Leave” a very different kind of subversive, twisty, fever dream. However versed you are in his work, Chan-wook goes out of his way to deliver something drastically different from his previous work while still providing viewers with a mystery that needs to be solved. But “Decision to Leave” is more than all of the things it’s trying to be, and I mean that as a compliment. Yes, it requires two viewings to truly follow all the breadcrumbs and put the unraveling mystery together. But it is also a masterfully crafted blending of opposing genres. “Decision to Leave” is a murder mystery, a rom-com, an erotic thriller, and a character drama all effectively and masterfully rolled into one.
There are very few filmmakers out there who can make all of those things come together so seamlessly. And even for someone as skilled as Chan-wook, “Decision to Leave” can come off as manic and unrefined. There is intention here though, as the film is purposefully non-linear and confounding in how the pieces are put together and how the story unfolds. The film hides all of its mysteries in plain sight, and gives you most of the answers to the questions upfront. But “Decision to Leave” asks a LOT of questions and becomes rather taxing on its audience if you’re not invested in the right things. Namely, are the questions you’re asking the ones that have answers, or are you in this to confirm your own agenda? This sounds more political than I mean it, but it is truly what makes “Decision to Leave” unlike any film in any of the many genres it is comprised of. Most films pick one genre to subvert and make that its sole focus, which is a task in and of itself already. This one takes 3 or 4 and subverts all of them simultaneously. It subverts it noir under it’s rom-com love story, which is under its thriller, almost Hitchock like “Vertigo” elements and editing.
As already stated, “Decision to Leave” is written and directed by Park Chan-wook. It stars Park Hae-il as detective Hae-jun and Tang Wei as the mysterious widow Seo-rae. It’s hard to really summarize the film without giving too much away, and even harder to put all the pieces together in any kind of concise synopsis. In short, the film follows Hae-jun, a homicide detective in a small Korean town who suffers from insomnia. He isn’t particularly good at his job (subversion example, hardboiled detective that actually doesn’t solve many cases) but becomes mesmerized by a young, beautiful woman Seo-rae who is a suspect in the death of her husband. Originally seen as a tragic climbing accident, Hae-jun decides to keep a close eye on his suspect, and in turn becomes obsessed and enthralled with her. Seo-rae playfully reciprocates those emotions, and their forbidden, unspoken love will inevitably have dire consequences for both of them.
That synopsis is but a fraction of what actually happens in “Decision to Leave,” and Chan-wook is as patient as he is frantic. He is constantly luring you in with astounding cinematography and shot composition, and is intent on never letting his viewers catch their breath or bearings. Just when you think you’ve got your finger on the pulse of “Decision to Leave,” you are whisked away to something else entirely and forced to reassess your conclusions. This can get rather frustrating, especially if you’re not really settled in or prepared for the journey you’re about to embark on. I firmly believe a second watch and/or continuous discussion with others who have seen it is required. “Decision to Leave” is not a one and done kind of film, and its restraint juxtaposed against its manic storytelling asks more of its viewers than any of his Chan-wook’s previous outings.
If you’re willing to let “Decision to Leave” in, you will be rewarded with a beautifully crafted love story shrouded in mystery and intrigue. It is masterfully crafted and gorgeously put together, and it helps that Tang Wei nails the collection of characters she is meant to portray. She’s part mysterious widow, part femme fatale, and part love interest in the purest form of the cheesiest love stories. Hae-il is good too, playing into the noir detective who truly believes he’s better at his job than he really is, but it’s Wei that runs away with “Decision to Leave,” and her story (despite being largely interpreted through Hae-jun) is the catalyst of events and the true heart and soul of the film. I still can’t get over how many different things “Decision to Leave” attempts to pack in and manages to pull off successfully. It may not grab you right away, and you’d be forgive for saying out loud, “what the fuck did I just watch?” when the credits roll. But I maintain that the longer it rattles around in your brain, the more you’ll come around to falling in love with the falling in love of it all.
“Decision to Leave” is a dazzling piece of cinema, something wholly unique in a sea of familiarity. It’s cleverness to twist that familiarity into a vehicle to deliver a mind bending, stylish and dare I say, sexy thriller is what defines it as Park Chan-wook’s most ambitious film to date. “Decision to Leave” is a film that takes quite a while to get going, and even when it does you may not be prepared for where it takes you or even how it leads you through its storytelling labyrinth. But it packs a wallop of craft and style, delivering a whirlwind of subversion that is sure to stick with you no matter how you fall once it concludes.
For myself, the more time that goes by from my first watch, the more “Decision to Leave” becomes a film that simply won’t leave my mind. It has rattled around in there for days now, and it compels me to watch it again and let its waves waft over me again.
A film that does that is a winner in my book.
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Decision to Leave” is now playing in select theaters. You can watch the trailer below.