A Really Good ‘Decision’

Park Chan-wook’s dazzling new movie might be his best and most mature

In Decision to Leave, the latest from Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), desire debilitates as it makes the pulse quicken. Desire at its most dangerous accelerates like an impending train wreck; the tragedy of the destination is certain, but the wreckage is fascinating to observe.

In modern-day Busan, South Korea, a talented and rising young police inspector Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) investigates the seemingly simple death of a mountain climber. While interrogating the man’s mysterious Chinese widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei), Hae-jun picks up on enough clues to follow-up with a stakeout of the woman. As he follows her activities as a caregiver for the elderly, Hae-jun is drawn into an exquisitely detailed infatuation that becomes a kinship and then… something else entirely.

DECISION TO LEAVE★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Park Chan-Wook
Written by: Park Chan-Wook and Seo-kyeong Jeong
Starring: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Go Kyung-Pyo, Jung Yi-seo, Jeong Min Park
Running time: 138 min

It’s noir, plain and simple, and you’ve seen this part of the story before. But in the hands of Chan-wook and co-writer Seo-kyeong Jeong, the script dazzles not only with keen observations of the ways anticipation of an impending text from a lover can stop the heart, but with a deep understanding of the complexities, and tragedies, of love gone wrong and crimes that should stay unsolved.

Add to that Chan-wook’s masterful filmmaking, which from the first frame imbues this busy world with clever transitions and visuals that are as gorgeous as they are engaging and which move along what would otherwise be too slow of a slow-burn drama. 

And burn it does. Hae-il and Wei smolder, making Chan-wook’s uncharacteristic restraint all the more delicious. There’s hardly a touch or a kiss for much of the movie, but it’s every bit as romantic and sexy as Chan-wook’s last film, 2016’s The Handmaiden. With that restraint comes fewer bits of slapstick humor and a lot less violence and sex; Decision to Leave represents a jump in maturity for the filmmaker. If Handmaiden was ultimately a bewitching and twisty comedy, Decision to Leave is a tender and complicated tragedy, one whose conclusion may leave you stunned and shattered in the theater seat.

Which is not say that the film, which earned Chan-wook a best director award at Cannes, is dull awards bait. Especially in its deployment of excellent bits for its supporting actors and big doses of humor early on, he stuffs Decision to Leave full of life, not to mention a few solidly suspenseful action scenes. But the last third settles into a different mode, one that is less mesmerizing and obsessive, and which jumps quickly past some important details toward its spellbinding conclusion.

Fans expecting Oldboy’s shocks or Handmaiden’s kink may find Decision to Leave’s more conventional plot disappointing, but the filmmaking is cause for celebration. Chan-wook’s made an exceptional movie heralding a welcome return to indie cinemas for one of the world’s most talented and consistently surprising directors. Who knew Park Chan-wook was the one to deliver such an emotionally resonant tour de force?

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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