The frenzied buzz over Bong Joon–ho’s phenomenal Parasite (2019) seems to have just been yesterday, with both a sweeping victory at the Oscars and the box office (the fourth highest grossing foreign film in the United States). Decision to Leave (2022), a crime thriller from the celebrated Korean auteur Park Chan–wook, was recently released in the United States, and the film has been often described by the press in tandem with Parasite. Decision To Leave had its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival with a tremendous success, and it also aims to be a leading contender in the 2023 Oscar race. While it is still extremely hard to replicate Parasite’s success, Decision to Leave is in no way less glamorous. In fact, the audience may be left much more emotionally struck after watching Decision to Leave.
The film begins like a very ordinary crime thriller: for the first five minutes, the audience is introduced to police officer Hae–joon (played by Park Hae–il), who is a bright, punctilious hero that could be plucked from any detective film. Very soon a murder takes place, and a suspect emerges. Seo–rae (played by Tang Wei), the wife of the deceased, becomes the person of interest, and subsequently meets Hae–joon for the first time. Then, the seemingly–plain film goes into a dizzy spiral of passion, romance, and crime that will require the audience’s utmost attention.
Decision to Leave follows the genre convention of a typical film noir: in investigating a murder case, a detective meets a mysterious “femme fatale” and unsurprisingly madly falls in love with her. But the film is much more than an average Hollywood cliché and rather a cinematic journey that cannot be fully described in plain words. Park Chan–wook is a director who is never satisfied with his dazzling visual elements. Reveling in the limitless possibility a film camera can offer, he takes on strange perspectives, crosses the boundary of space and time, and elaborately designs every shot, every transition, and every montage sequence that will leave the audience bewildered yet absolutely fascinated. To take a simple example without giving away too much, there’s a few prolonged sequences of Hae–joon spying on Seo–rae from afar in the first half of the film. The camera often zooms in and out to follow Hae–joon’s perspective, but in the next shot, the audience will find Hae–joon standing only inches away from Seo–rae in the same room—we smoothly enter Hae–joon’s imagination, or to say, the camera exteriorizes and manifests his desire.
In an interview with CNN, Park Chan–wook said that “Seo–rae can be labelled a femme fatale, until she can’t. Hae–joon is the investigator, until he becomes the investigated…the story departs from all the conventions of that genre.” Instead of a unilateral crime thriller, Decision to Leave crosses the border and blends different genres in fascinating ways. Like the spying sequences which are often intense and action–packed, Decision to Leave somehow portrays them romantically, opening up ample room for the audience’s imagination. The audience may think Hae–joon is watching Seo–rae secretly from a car and anxiously looking for clues for the murder. But is he really spying on her, or anxious at all? Seo–rae doesn’t seem to know that she’s being watched, but occasionally she looks directly into the camera, and even makes direct, playful contact with Hae–joon. Or maybe it’s Seo–rae that is actually watching Hae–joon? In this sense, spying becomes a two–way process, and the power dynamic delicately shifts and metamorphoses. Spying is also about getting to know the person you have a crush on, questioning the suspect in a police interview room becomes a date night with exquisite sushi takeout, and thus an investigation into a crime can also become the disguise for a passionate game of love. The mood and tone of the film constantly switches between crime thriller and romantic comedy, weaving a convoluted web of desire and leaving the audience with a mesmerizing sense of ambiguity.
Decision to Leave is also an unusual film in Park Chan–wook’s complete filmography. Despite the director’s usual obsession with morbid violence and explicit portrayal of sexuality seen in iconic works like Oldboy (2003) and The Handmaiden (2016), Decision to Leave is a work of restraint and intimacy. Immediately after the film’s premiere at Cannes, Park Chan–wook said to the audience, “Thank you all for coming to see this long and boring love story.” Indeed, if there’s any ingredient of obsession in the film, it’s an incessant obsession for love. Deep down his luxuriant visual elements and genre–bending approach, Decision to Leave is a story that almost desperately searches for an old–fashioned, out–dated love in a modern, disciplined world. The film invokes the imagery of mountain and ocean in such a richly–layered and ingenious fashion, and with tiny, even unnoticeable details scattering across the film, the imagery eventually transforms to a heartbreaking emotional catharsis at the end that will leave the audience absolutely shattered for weeks to come.