Decision to Leave Review: The Mystery of Love

Park Chan-wook is at his playful best in his latest effort, Decision to Leave. It’s an audacious take on the neo-noir romantic murder mystery. It’s easy to see why he won the Best Director prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

Renowned for his lively experimentation, Park creates an enticing amalgam of genre conventions in this film. Decision to Leave transforms a familiar scenario into a deeply poignant tale of forbidden love. In the process, Park refreshes tired tropes to craft a unique cinematic experience. This is not your average good-guy-falls-for-the-femme-fatale noir. It’s also surprisingly funny at times.

The film begins as a police procedural, but its narrative strategy shifts as detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) investigates a man’s death and becomes infatuated with the victim’s widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei). As much as Hae-jun hates to admit, Seo-rae looks like the prime suspect in her husband’s murder.

At the same time, Hae-jun’s life in Busan is complicated by his weekends-only marriage to a wife who lives and works in Ipo. On top of that, he has another frustrating murder case in which the suspects remain at large. Add to this a partner who’s both incompetent and buffoonish (actually a real pain in the ass), and our central character’s life is a mess.

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Narratively, there’s a lot going on in Decision to Leave. On the surface, it appears that Park complicates matters stylistically with his fusion of visual styles. But Park doesn’t waste a single plot point generated by these offshoot storylines and characters. Nothing is excessive in this film. Decision to Leave has a powerful impact because of Park’s masterful control over every facet of his story.

While the first half of the film sets up the necessary scenarios (the femme fatale, the doomed romance, the obsession), it’s in the latter half that Park really dazzles. He displays an exhilarating proficiency to manipulate genre form and dissect traditions to generate an innovative narrative approach.

To start, he builds up a sense of Hae-jun’s investigative methodology. Details pile on top of details: the character is as precise in his job as our director. A key element of the film’s genius comes once we are introduced to Seo-rae. Park introduces a mirroring technique that derails Hae-jun’s precision and falls in line with his growing obsession with her. Suddenly, this detective’s neatly plotted life begins to unravel.

There’s nothing unusual or special about using these devices (windows, mirrors, computer screens) in a neo-noir to frame, reflect, and even invert the viewer’s perceptions. But Park’s inspired strategy skews perspectives and impacts our experience of the film to become the driving force of the narrative.

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Hae-jun’s obsession is the axis on which Decision to Leave revolves. While the attraction grows, the mirroring increases. When this detective’s point of view goes off kilter, his storyline merges with and blends into Seo-rae’s life, and even into her memories.

As timelines meld, Park obliterates traditional rhythms and cadences associated with the movement of a noir thriller. The ensuing experience is more akin to an encroaching nonlinear narrative, advancing more and more like a dream.

Decision to Leave is reminiscent of the poetic work of Alain Resnais. This is a surprising development considering where Park begins the film’s trajectory, but it’s a breathtaking result.

The synthesis of our lovers’ perspectives transforms the film into a deeper, more lyrical film about romance. Decision to Leave is a heartbreaking statement on human relationships, and the frailty of genuine love.

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Decision to Leave opens in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox on Oct. 28.

Read more about Decision to Leave in our interview with Park Chan-wook.

 



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