The most shocking aspect of Park Chan-wook’s (“The Handmaiden”) new film “Decision to Leave” is that it isn’t shocking at all. The South Korean filmmaker is known for his unexpected, jarring storylines and dark subject matter, but in his latest film, he dials it way back. In a story about a detective in love with the prime suspect in a murder case, one might expect some craziness or serious erotic tension, but Park instead focuses on romance and heartbreak.
Much of the film is a fairly standard police procedural, in which Hae-Jun (Park Hae-il, “Hansan: Rising Dragon”) investigates the murder of Seo-Rae’s (Tang Wei, “The Whistleblower”) husband. Romantic tension begins to build between the two as she becomes his prime suspect, but the detective-suspect dynamic and the fact that Hae-Jun is married complicates any potential for something real between them. Some fun twists and turns involving fitness app data and timers reveal how the murder was carried out, but Hae-Jun can’t bring himself to put Seo-Rae away. He lets the case go unsolved and escapes to another town to be with his wife, far from any temptation brought on by Seo-Rae.
Where another procedural might end here, “Decision to Leave” keeps going. It doesn’t let its characters off the hook that easily. The unresolved romantic tension doesn’t simply go away; Hae-Jun still longs for Seo-Rae as she does for him. She appears in his new town, newly married and not ready to let him go. When Seo-Rae becomes the prime suspect in the murder of her new husband, Hae-Jun can no longer avoid her, but he can treat her differently. In a wonderfully funny callback to an earlier moment in the film in which Hae-Jun buys the two of them an expensive sushi dinner as he interrogates her, he is now only willing to give her a cheap corn dog. In the wake of the previous case, she has shattered his heart, and this is how he shows it.
Park’s direction in the sequences where Hae-Jun connects all the dots on a case is masterful. He weaves bits of previously given information into new images that reveal the true nature of the events, and he edits these sequences together with perfect timing and flow to keep all the moving parts coherent. Having Hae-Jun appear in the flashback sequences while retracing the murderer’s steps also gives the scene a more subjective perspective and makes it feel more personal. It’s a marvel of visual storytelling and the sequence that shows how Seo-Rae’s first husband was murdered, in particular, is one of the best of the year.
The film being a romantic thriller also allows Park to show off his skills as a restrained, intimate filmmaker. While his bold, flashy directorial flourishes are fun and impressive, what really makes “Decision to Leave” special is what’s left after everything is stripped down. There is a raw emotional force in any quiet scene between Hae-Jun and Seo-Rae. The stillness of the camera, the emptiness of the frame and the subtle performances of the actors combine to create palpable tension and longing between the two, and it makes the film heartbreaking in ways that a maximalist filmmaking style won’t allow.
Though not ambitious in the way most would think — big, bold, risky — “Decision to Leave” is such a radical departure from Park Chan-wook’s typical material that it feels somewhat groundbreaking. It’s no wonder Park won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival last May, as it’s the perfect showcase of every directorial trick in his bag. Park is able to show off his skills as an intimate filmmaker in a way he never has before. It’s a wonderful film that perfectly captures feelings of longing and despair while also managing to have fun with its convoluted detective storylines. Unlike some of his previous work, the twists aren’t built on shock value, but on high personal stakes. It makes these moments, and this film, far more powerful and much more successful in generating a strong emotional reaction from the audience.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at email@example.com.