Surprising at every turn, ‘Decision to Leave’ masterfully merges the genres of the crime thriller and romance

Park Chan-wook delivers another mind-blowing experience at the cinema.

The way that director Park Chan-wook plays around with genre conventions in his latest movie, ‘Decision to Leave’ shows off his mastery of the medium of film. The film is equal parts a crime thriller as it is also a stunning romantic drama but is also loaded with a certain dead-pan, dry sense of humour that is filled with irony and even cynicism. With great use of brisk and flashy editing techniques that makes the 138-minute running time fly by unnoticed, stunning cinematography that plays with your head with its unusual framing and gorgeous lighting, and a script never fails to twist and turn in surprising ways, Park Chan-wook delivers another mind-blowing experience at the cinema.

While other critics have said this is not on the same level as his previous works like ‘The Handmaiden’ or ‘Oldboy’ and while I can see where they are coming from, even his lesser work is better than most filmmakers at their best.

‘Decision to Leave’ is a crime thriller about a police detective who falls in love with the widow of a man who fell off a mountain while mountain climbing. As Hae-joon (Park Hae Il), the police detective, investigates the cause of death, he begins to obsess over Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the Chinese widow of the fallen mountain climber as he discovers that she was a victim of domestic abuse and her marriage to the victim may have been one of convenience. From widow to prime suspect, Hae-joon finds himself attracted to Seo-rae, even though he’s married.

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Photo: Decision to Leave trailer

At every turn, the film jumps back and forth between a murder mystery and a dark love story. Director Park Chan-wook masterfully uses match cuts and jump cuts to play with time as Hae-joon’s affections for her builds up and gets stronger through the investigation. There’s a terrific scene where the detective is watching the widow with a pair of binoculars as she is working and in a sudden cut, he is in the room with her, unseen, and is close enough to touch. Through Park’s direction, Hae-joon is present in Seo-rae’s day-to-day affairs through his imagination, or maybe it’s Seo-rae who is present in all of Hae-joon’s thoughts.

What’s interesting about this film is that, while mixing the genre of crime thriller and romance, the film never attempts to pass judgment on its characters. Yes, Hae-joon is committing some level of infidelity, though they never consummate it. In fact, his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) is aware that they are not in love but she’s committed to the marriage nonetheless.

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Photo: Decision to Leave trailer

What it paints is a picture of a policeman who is only passionate about his work – he has a wall filled with photos of the cases he has yet to solve, which may be the cause of his insomnia – and maybe that’s also the reason why he seems infatuated with Seo-rae. She’s the job. Is she a killer or is she a victim herself? And what will happen now that Seo-rae seems very much open to the affections of the detective?

As the story unfolds, we become witnesses to a dark and dangerous aspect of love – of its capacity to blur the lines between what is right and wrong and to muddle our priorities and our own well-being – and that when framed within the context of crime and murder, love leaves no space for justice. Like this movie and story beats that push it forward, love is merciless in how it makes demands from us all.

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Photo: Decision to Leave trailer

The film’s tone is dark and foreboding – there’s very little joy in this love story – but it is also oddly comedic when taken as a whole. The ending is ironic, which is the natural state of the world, according to screenwriting guru Robert McKee, and it’s why I find that there’s a dark humour to this film. The way with which Seo-rae (through the wonderfully layered and nuanced performance by Tang Wei) is so resolute in her choices, her total dedication to the decisions that she makes and the way by which Park Hae-il embodies the stoic Hae-joon, where he almost seems like an involuntary agent in this farce, that I couldn’t help but smile at the end of the film. I didn’t like these characters and it was such a sordid and strange situation to dramatize but I couldn’t stop watching. The acting was impeccable, the direction was so masterful, and by the end of it, I was just swept away by all these thoughts about how merciless and demanding love can be. 

It’s not as explosive as ‘The Handmaiden’ nor is it as shocking as ‘Oldboy’ but ‘Decision to Leave’ will stay in my head for a very long time.

My Rating:

5 stars - Don't Look Up review

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Decision to Leave is now in cinemas nationwide. Buy your tickets here.
Homestream image from the TIFF website.

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Decision to Leave
Crime, Drama, Mystery
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