Movie Review: Decision to Leave

While he had already made a few films before 2002, it was with the release that year of the first in his “vengeance” trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, that South Korean director Park Chan-wook really burst onto the international scene. This was followed up by the even more successful Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, both of which rounded out the thematically linked trilogy and helped to really set him apart from other directors, with a distinct visual style, bursts of vicious violence, and darkly twisted plotlines. In comparison to those movies and his other acclaimed works like 2009’s Thirst and 2016’s The HandmaidenDecision to Leave is surprisingly tame. The style is still there in spades, and the plot is unafraid to go to some upsetting places, but what violence occurs is mostly off screen and the eroticism is conveyed almost entirely through facial expressions.

Busan detective Hae-Jun (Park Hae-il) suffers from insomnia, and so spends his nights on stakeouts, monitoring criminals or people connected to them in hopes of finding some little tidbit that will help him to break a case. His wife, Jeong-ahn (Lee Jung-hyun), lives separately in the town of Ipo where she works in a nuclear power plant. As a result, the pair only see each other once a week, and even then Hae-Jun is seemingly just going through the motions. Hae-Jun and his partner Soo-Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) have been struggling to locate a suspected murderer in one case when they are sent out to investigate another. The body of a retired immigration worker has been discovered at the base of a mountain he loved climbing. While there are many indications that it could be an accident or suicide, his wife Seo-Rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant many years his junior, displays many signs that she could potentially have been involved in the death. As he begins to investigate her, Hae-Jun finds himself becoming obsessed and Seo-Rae is only too happy to play along, and the pair begin a courtship that could have potentially dangerous consequences.

In the 1990s, these types of movies were pretty common in the United States, but where those earlier versions were content to coast along using cheap exploitation, Decision to Leave is light on blood and practically chaste, with barely a kiss ever exchanged between the two leads. Instead, glances and facial expressions are used in combination with exquisite cinematography, a beautiful score and clever editing to create suspense and convey desire, to spectacular effect. This is one of the most gorgeously staged films of 2022, with nearly every moment looking like it could be paused at random and framed for an art exhibition. Symbolism abounds as the twisted romance at the core unfolds, leaving both physical and psychic damage in its wake. It doesn’t shock viewers as much as the director’s earlier works, but it does leave them equally enraptured. ★★★★★


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★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor

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