Nobody does convoluted like Park Chan-wook. Far beyond the point that Theseus himself would have given up and turned to a pile of desiccated bones in some dead-end nook, the Korean master behind “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden” will be coolly sauntering through another of his immaculately intricate labyrinths, pausing very occasionally — with perhaps the slightest trace of irritation — to make sure the laggards in the back can keep up. The process should be maddening, but instead, as his new Cannes competition title proves, it’s almost magical how his trail of elegant, glinting clues leads us out, blinking, into the light again. After the world-conquering success of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” and the small-screen domination of “Squid Game,” your new, sublimely accomplished Korean thriller obsession is here, and it is Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave.”
Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, beautifully combining the classic noir archetypes of lovelorn patsy and dogged gumshoe) is an ace police detective. The youngest officer ever to make Inspector in bustling Busan, he is handsome, respected and happily married to a pretty, witty wife (Lee Jung-hyun). However they do not live together, as she works in the smaller seaside town of Ipo, a few hours’ drive away, and Hae-joon, being on the homicide squad, needs the vice of the big city to thrive. Though even here, things are slow: the first conversation with his lanky, callow younger partner (Go Kyung-pyo, subject of some deliciously droll background gags) sees Hae-joon complain that there aren’t enough murders for them to work on.
So when a man’s body is found at the base of a nearby mountain, Hae-joon is given the case. Which is how he meets the man’s beautiful, enigmatic wife Seo-rae (a riveting, chameleonic Tang Wei), a Chinese-speaking eldercare worker whose apparent lack of concern at newfound widowhood piques Hae-joon’s curiosity. He gets to know her, and continues staking out her apartment at night even after her alibi has convinced him of her innocence, partly because it’s the only time the insomniac detective can get a good night’s sleep. Curiosity flares into a strangely respectful sort of obsession, in which every boundary of familiarity that is crossed is tacitly condoned and reciprocated.
“Decision to Leave” is essentially a love story, and it’s a deeply sexy one, though there isn’t a single sex scene, and Hae-joon and Seo-rae scarcely so much as touch, bar one riffling through the other’s pockets or applying sweet-smelling lotion to their callused hands. Instead their soulmate-style bond — complicated, naturally, when Seo-rae’s alibi turns out not to be as solid as it first appeared — is evoked by the two actors’ innately believable natural chemistry, and the stunning choreography of certain scenes, whereby their gestures and movements sync up as though their bodies have always known one another.
This harmony continues throughout, through a change of location (the action eventually moves to Ipo) and a change of hairstyle and husband for Seo-rae. But it’s present right from their first real conversation, in a police interrogation room, when, after a delivered lunch of expensive high-end sushi (much to Hae-jon’s partner’s annoyance) they wordlessly clean up the table with the practiced efficiency of a long-married couple who have done it a thousand times.
It is far from the only time the staging of a scene is more loaded with meaning than the words spoken. Kim Ji-yong’s superb camerawork (no surprise he was also DP on Kim Jee-woon’s gorgeous period spy movie “The Age of Shadows”) seems to find new heights of expressivity without, somehow, becoming show-offy: A conversation in a stairwell remains visually interesting through use of perhaps the only two new angles of coverage on that hackneyed locale that exist. There are glorious overheads (torches searching woodland at night) and slicing symmetries (a car parked on a beachside highway, sea on one side, sand on the other) and an almost insultingly cool use of reflections. TV screens and windows overlay characters on top of one another despite them being in separate spaces, which sets up the odd gently surreal flourish when Hae-joon, who will be watching Seo-rae from afar, actually appears behind her in the room.
And there are montages, accompanied by a woodwind score (from Cho Young-wuk) lush with romance and intrigue, that deliver a delirium of imagery that would be the centerpiece climax of any other film, but here is simply a debonair aside. Even when faced with the age-old conundrum of delivering backstory while keeping the audience engaged, Park is on inventive form. One expository monologue comes layered over an otherwise unrelated, but entirely thrilling rooftop footchase. Or maybe not so unrelated: It culminates in a highly unusual standoff in which Hae-joon and his quarry have a quick heart-to-heart about what men will do — what values they will betray, what peace of mind they will sacrifice — for love.
Though ‘Decision to Leave,” in its unknowably bewitching female lead especially, shares some DNA with Park’s twisted, baroque period piece “The Handmaiden,” it is also breathtakingly modern. Smartphone (and smartwatch) technology quickly becomes integral to the story, and not only on a functional, information-conveyance level. Given the well-documented challenges that the internet poses not just to directors in search of a pretty visual, but also to mystery writers aware that 90% of Agatha Christie plots would be solved on page one with a Google search these days, Park’s ability to lean into tech’s formal and thematic cinematic potential is little short of revelatory. From the agonizing delays in a text-message conversation to the role that audio and video recordings play in the emotional corkscrew of Park and Cheung Seokyung’s screenplay, there is a little kernel of profundity here, in the suggestion that the deathlessness of modern tech life has fundamentally changed the way we connect, the way we remember, the way we experience love and loss.
Human perception is fallible: Is Seo-rae’s dress blue or green? Human emotions are changeable: Does she love him or is she merely a very talented, sociopathic mimic? Compared to the lossless clarity and endless replay-ability of a recording — which can here be retrieved even from a phone thrown into the sea — memory is fickle, and thoughts and motivations cannot be known outside the locked box of your own heart. Yet if the heart of a lover is unreliable, it is also, as the surprising, sad yet wildly satisfying ending to this scintillating work of genre art proves, the only thing worth having.
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