‘The films I made in Korea were not very talky, and because I’m not used to the English language, I didn’t want to make something which depended on dialogue…’ was something Korean director Park Chan-wook shared when I interviewed him a few years back. His words came back to me as I was watching Decision to Leave, his masterful thriller which may not be his best to date, but is certainly the most dialogue heavy; perhaps at 59, the director has finally gained the confidence to trim back the visual ingenuity that’s been his signature.
So the director of the outlandish of Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance doesn’t have quite the full set of visual flourishes this time around, although the Hitchockian vibe of Stoker is developed in a modern, high-tech way. This is a drama about a cop, detective Hae-Jun (Park Hae-il) who starts out hoping to solve an unsolved mystery; Ki Soo Doo, a businessman has been found dead at the foot of a mountain, and foul play may be involved. The obvious suspect is the dead man’s much-younger wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who laughs and jokes when Hae-Jun interviews her in a rather daring manner. She reveals a complex political past, and when evidence start to point elsewhere, Hae-Jun develops an obsession with the widow that leads to a surprise revelation. Then, the two meet thirteen months later in a fish-market and ….
So we’re in Basic Instinct territory, with a proper femme fatale, a dogged, potentially corruptible cop, and several other character who may have a bearing on the investigation, not least Hae-Jun’s partner, whose work in a nuclear power plant allows Hae-Jun to get closer to his quarry, romance, or possibly murderer…Decision to Leave does have a few visual shocks, like the insects that feast on Ki Soo Doo’s eyeballs or the sandy finale, but in general it resists the kind of visceral bloodletting that the director has revelled in before, although the delicate falling snows of Lady Vengeance do return. Decision of Leave is decidedly high-tech as noir, with lots of detail about how phone technology can be used to uncover and conceal crimes, but the questions about whether Hae-Jun can ever trust Seo-rae are fairly timeless, and Chan-wook matches his dialogue with a grand sense of visual austerity that becomes pronounced by the vivid beach climax.
Chan-wook deservedly took the best director gong at Cannes this year for Decision to Leave, the kind of twisty-turny romance that’s been waiting for a champion in the ten years since Wong Kar-Wei ‘s output dropped. As an adult drama that happens to take place in the world of police-work, but is more of a dark romance than a thriller, Decision to Leave is one of 2022’s most accomplished films, with two mesmerising performances at the centre, and a welcome return for a cinematic grand-master on top form.