Decision to Leave

Review by James Mahon

Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar winning film Parasite (2019) was a landmark event for both South Korean and international cinema in general, disabusing audiences entirely of – as Joon Ho rightly put it – “the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” Less than three years later, and once again emerging from the endless pool of talented South Korean filmmakers, comes Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave (2022) to reaffirm this fact. While not without its flaws and imperfections, Chan-Wook’s film is a strikingly original reinvention of the noir detective genre, possessing a strong emotional centre.

The plot is primarily framed around detective Park Hae-il (Jang Hae-joon) as he attempts to fulfil the duties of his job whilst undergoing a sense of disillusionment and alienation that has left him disconnected from his wife and most people around him. This is dramatically altered with the death of a retired immigration officer, and Hae-il’s subsequent entrancement with the man’s wife, a Chinese immigrant (Tang Weil), and chief suspect in her husband’s murder. The film is a reversal of the traditional trope of noir films that places the detective machinations of the protagonist at the heart of the narrative, and ensures that any love interest is not much more than a subplot. Decision to Leave is first and foremost a love story, with any detective activity by Hae-il merely being used as a medium to express this.

The brilliance of Chan-Wook’s directing is his seeming ability to capture the internal mindset of his characters. Without any artificial tool or contrivance, there is a feeling, that we as an audience implicitly know what  Hae-il or Wei is thinking without it ever being explicitly articulated. It is such a rare talent for films to possess, with such an atmosphere of introspection and interiority generally confined to the far more creatively limitless field of novels and fiction writing. To a degree, such time spent on cultivating this emotional understanding of his characters, can lead to a lack of overall narrative urgency and propulsion. However, echoing the best films of Federico Fellini such as La Dolce Vita  (1960) or 8 ½ (1963), Chan-wook is declaring that the characters themselves are the most important part of cinema, as opposed to the actual story.

Chan-Wook and his cinematographer Kim Ji-Yong use a variety of innovative techniques to achieve this contemplative sensibility. There is an intense focus on the micro-details of a person’s actions, such as the cracking of the knuckles or drinking a bottle of water. Ji-Yong never rushes the camera in its recording of those within its frame, Hae-il’s face and the emotions within it, are consistently examined and decoded. There are a multitude of camera perspectives used in an attempt to depict the mise-en-scene, such as the eyes of a corpse as an ant walks over it or a text messaging app. The cumulative effect is to create a paradoxically organic aesthetic, where seeing the world through that of a dead body seems entirely natural.

The script by director Chan-Wook and Chung Seo-Kyung is slightly underdeveloped. Minor characters such as Hae-il’s wife or his detective partners, lack any real human complexity and are really just superficial sidepieces to that of the two central people in the film. Nonetheless, this is perfectly acceptable when the creative and technical skill of Decision to Leave make its two central characters so captivating to watch. Deftly subverting the flawed romances of traditional noir films,  Chan-Wook has managed to entirely reinvigorate the genre. 

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