Love does funny things to people. But when you’re a married cop investigating a crime, falling in love with a prime suspect makes things extra convoluted. That’s what happens to South Korean officer Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) while he’s investigating the death of a businessman in what appears to be a mountain climbing accident. The moment he meets the dead man’s Chinese wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), something stirs in him that soon grows to be a sort of obsession.
The fact that Hae-jun works in another city, Busan, while his wife remains in Ipo adds a bit of strain to their marriage even though his wife (Jung Yi-seo) clearly adores and dotes on him. She attributes her husband’s gloomy mood to a lack of excitement (read: violent cases involving death). Perhaps there’s some truth to that but clearly, Hae-jun is an astute detective who loves the crime-solving aspect of his job. When we see him, however, he’s suffering from insomnia which seems to be made worse by the constant commute to work through foggy roads. Is he suffering from brain fog caused by overwork or stress? Or is his repressed feelings for Seo-rae clouding his sound judgments?
I LOVE the premise of this romance-whodunit from Park Chan-wook, who’s got a reputation for creating violent thrillers thanks to Oldboy and his Vengeance Trilogy, as well as dark sexually-charged ones like Stoker and The Handmaiden. I was introduced to his work via Stoker, which is quite violent for my taste, and The Little Drummer Girl miniseries.
I read in an article that Chan-wook decidedly subdues the graphic violence and sexuality in this one to appeal to broader audiences, as in someone like me who’d be averse to something too gory. There’s a heavy Hitchcockian noir vibe here, especially with a beautiful woman at the center of the story. But his inspiration actully came from the Swedish detective novels Martin Beck from the 60s, in fact, per IMDb, his pitch was “what if Martin Beck fell in love with a suspect?”
I won’t go into details about the plot as this is a film that is best to experience knowing as little as possible. What I can say is there’s a mesmerizing quality to how everything unfolds. The dynamic camerawork with the zooming and crossfades technique and stunning cinematography by Kim Ji-yong adds to the film’s riveting energy. The level of craftsmanship and artistry of the film just astounds me… the scenes on the mountain are especially dazzling, and I love the dream-like quality that reinforces the sense of enigma even further.
The way Chan-wook toys with our sense of place and time can be both frustrating and captivating. At times it’s hard to decipher whether the two leads are actually together or not at a given moment but I think that’s by design. In an age of instant gratification and hypersexualized media, the chaste nature of their affair feels refreshing and intoxicating.
Great casting always makes all the difference and both Park Hae-il and Tang Wei are excellent here, boosted by their strong chemistry together. The mild-mannered Hae-il internalizes everything, but his body language speaks volumes that this case and being with Seo-rae is messing with his head. Wei is magnetic and alluring as the femme fatale in this modern noir. Her come-hither look feels natural and not manufactured, and she uses it well. I’ve shortlisted her as the top 5 Best Breakout Performers of last year even though she’s had over 20+ films under her belt.
Seo-rae is a seductively beautiful woman, but there’s more depth to her character and Chan-wook subverts our expectations of such an archetype. The fact that her character is Chinese and she struggles with her Korean, constantly relying on the translation app on her mobile phone, makes her human and somehow relatable. But the language barrier complicates the case as things easily get lost in translation. As an immigrant living in the US where English is not my mother tongue, I think it’s brilliant to incorporate that language miscommunication aspect into a murder mystery.
Decision To Leave is South Korea’s official submission to this year’s Oscars in the ‘Best International Feature Film’ category. I love it so much it’s on my Top 10 Best of 2022. It’s truly a travesty that The Academy failed to recognize this film, which would’ve even been worthy of inclusion in the Best Picture category. It’s truly one of the best of 2022, and I’d say the same about the astounding score by Jo Yeong-wook that I’ve highlighted here. I’d even boldly say I like this one far more than Parasite, a film I appreciate but unlikely to watch again. It’s got everything one would want in a neo-noir… it’s stylish, mysterious, heart-wrenching, and romantic, with a shocking finale I didn’t see coming. It’s also one of the best-looking films I’ve seen this year and one I’m keen on watching again one day.
Have you seen Decision To Leave? What did YOU think?