Decision to Leave


‘…an adult drama that happens to take place in the world of police-work, but is more of a dark romance than a thriller…’

‘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.


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  1. I enjoyed this film very much and it is certainly among the best I’ve seen this year. I agree with you that Park and his co-script writer have produced a form of noir romance. The plot is so complex and its presentation on screen so dazzling that I’ll need to watch it a couple of times more to unravel the narrative development. I’m glad I saw it on the National Media Museum’s large screen but also that as a MUBI release it will be streaming soon. I was completely overwhelmed by Tang Wei. I later realised I’d seen her before in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) and as the lead in Ann Hui’s Golden Era (2014). She’s married to a South Korean director and I think she appears in his Netflix film, Wonderland due out soon.

    • Similarly wowed by Tang Wei, a very unexpected performance, but a very accomplished one. Thanks for the corrections, too, much appreciated. Like you, I had a few issues with some of the plot details, but the overall experience was overwhelming in the right way. The bloodletting may have been toned down since Lady Vengence, but the film still reaches to real dramatic heights by the end…

  2. I wrote quite the same about Decision to Leave. Mostly a dark romance, more than a classic thriller. But always the topic of revenge is at work, beautifully directed by the great Park.
    Another great review you made.

  3. Have only ever seen Korean War movies (surprise) and they’re always top notch, I’ll give this a go when/if it gets to Netflix who seem to have a monopoly on Korean stuff.

    • I’ll reassess the best and worst of the year next month, but Morbius was a work of Wellsian dynamism compared to The 355 or Me Time or The Bubble.

  4. I think the idea of having a year of mourning here in the US before getting involved again sounds like it would have helped this film’s protag.

    The only one that I’d heard of from his filmography was Snowpiercer and the idea didn’t appeal to me, so I never bothered with it.

    In many ways, I like korean dramas and shows because they’re still focused on telling a story first…

    • Is that mouring time-frame a law in the US? Biden interferering in your lives AGAIN?!

      Your last comment nails why Korean cinema is one of the most fruitful areas to explore in cinema today. Sure, there are some fights and some mountaineering action, and some old-school noir plotting, but this is a good story, well told, and that makes it a pleasure to watch.

      Wasn’t mad about Snowpiercer, I think Lady Vengence is the best one for me….

      • No, it’s just tradition. But a very good tradition imo. It’s prevents a lot of bad decisions from being made.

        It’s also why manga and anime are still drawing the kids in. Story trumps message in fiction every time.

        Do you have a review for Lady Vengeance?

        • No, I’ll maybe knock one out soon. But this guy is certainly a director worth looking into, while he does have wild visuals, he’s also got a great grasp of how to construct a narrative.

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