Images in Review: Decision to Leave makes some questionable decisions

Tharini Prakash

Park Hae-il stars in Park Chan-wook’s detective film Decision to Leave. (Kiara Royer/The Williams Record)

Having heard extensively about Park Chan-wook’s mastery in filmmaking, I sat down at Decision to Leave with the expectation that I’d be blown away. Instead, I left feeling confused and unsatisfied. Chan-wook’s latest feature is a romance-mystery-thriller, for which he has received both critical praise and the award for Best Director at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It’s true that Decision to Leave is beautifully directed, but the plot leaves much to be desired. 

The film centers around Hae-Jun (Park Hae-il), a detective investigating the suspicious death of a man found at the bottom of a mountain in South Korea. An insomniac with a strained marital relationship who is generally unhappy with his life, Hae-Jun interrogates the dead man’s widow, Seo-Rae (Tang Wei), who is beautiful but behaves oddly and has suspicious cuts and bruises on her body. This sequence of events probably sounds like a familiar story. From this point on, Decision to Leave follows a fairly conventional path, reminiscent of Vertigo and Basic Instinct — film noirs where a detective finds himself attracted to and compelled by his female suspect, who is very obviously hiding something, and ultimately lets his life unravel in the process.

Hae-Jun passes his sleepless nights watching Seo-Rae from a distance, which she both notices and enjoys. They begin spending time together as the investigation continues, even as damning evidence comes to light and another suspicious murder takes place. At this point, I was hoping that Chan-wook would take a dramatic left turn and try showing us a version of this tale without played-out tropes. That hope never fully materialized. Seo-Rae ends up being the stereotypical mysterious and intriguing femme fatale for most of the movie, and Hae-Jun’s personal life suffers as a result of his obsession with her. Although this is a recycled story told in countless other films, it is updated for a 2022 audience with technology and surveillance playing a critical role in Hae-Jun’s investigation of and relationship with Seo-Rae. 

In an attempt to distinguish itself from similar movies, Decision to Leave includes a handful of twists and odd decisions from characters who would otherwise seem predictable and shallow. The plot, however, gets lost in its attempts to subvert the genre, leaving the audience struggling to follow along. Chan-wook relies heavily on insomnia-induced fantasy sequences and mistranslations between Seo-Rae, who is originally from China, and Hae-Jun, who is Korean, which ultimately feel cluttered and unnecessarily complicated. 

The murder investigation is ultimately tangential to the main story: Hae-Jun and Seo-Rae’s bizarre, not quite romantic but certainly intimate relationship. It is meant to be an obsessive and forbidden love from Hae-Jun’s end, but watching their scenes together felt clinical and alienating to me. I thought the actors elevated these roles, which were probably bland and one-dimensional on the page, but not enough to feel any real chemistry between them. It isn’t especially clear why either character becomes so enamored with the other, with many of their scenes being products of Hae-Jun’s imagination and their conversations being almost solely about the murder investigation. I wasn’t very convinced that either would jeopardize anything important for the other, and yet, they do. 

There were, however, plenty of reasons that I still enjoyed the movie. First, the shots are beautiful. Stylistic camera-work and cinematography emphasize the rich and muted colors on screen that surround the fragile principal relationship at the heart of the movie. There is a moodiness that permeates the entire run-time, which falsely lulled me into the sense that what I was watching was more profound than it actually was. This emotion isn’t a bad thing — it ultimately helps uplift the ending of the film, which I think is what makes the movie stand out and proves Chan-wook’s filmmaking prowess. 

The conclusion is both engrossing and frustrating. Even though I hadn’t felt particularly connected to any of the characters during the film and was not entirely sure that I knew what events had transpired leading to the film’s end, I found myself fully gripped by the choices that Hae-Jun and Seo-Rae end up making. It was enough to justify watching the first two hours of the movie.

Decision to Leave also adds to the growing list of Korean films that have received  global traction. It’s likely that the movie will rack up a number of awards this season and attract new audience members to the world of international cinema. While it may not have lived up to the preemptive standards I set for it, Decision to Leave will certainly make waves in the broader filmgoing community, and for that reason, it is worth seeing.

Decision to Leave will be playing at Images until Nov. 17.