"Decision to Leave" Cannes Review
Phantom Thread meets Vertigo in Park Chan-wook’s deliciously twisted Decision to Leave. For many directors, that combination would come together as well as oil and water. But for the famed South Korean auteur, whose previous works of Oldboy and The Handmaiden (both awarded at Cannes. I predict this one will be as well) have exemplified his unparalleled ability to combine the traditional with the gonzo, it’s a heavenly pair that you immediately want more of.
As the new hotshot detective within the Busan police force, Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is brought in to solve a mysterious new murder case. A climber has fallen from the top of the local mountain, and a strangely coincidental set of clues hints that it may not have been an accident. The victim’s Chinese immigrant wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), is brought in for questioning, a move that jeopardizes everything as Hae-jun develops a sort-of crush on her. Seo-rae seems to know more than she lets on, but Hae-jun’s judgment is clouded by love, putting him at odds with the mounting evidence against her and the rest of the detectives. What ensues is a dangerous game of cat and mouse where the intentions of the players are often hidden, but the danger is always present.
Just like every film in Chan-wook’s filmography, the direction, especially the camerawork and editing, is first-rate. It’s not uncommon for 360-degree twists, reversals, re-reversals, and smooth pans to take place in one continuous movement. One scene, in particular, is an entertainingly surreal set piece where the camera peers through the detective’s binoculars as he spies on a suspect, only for him to be transported to that location next to the person of interest. DP Kim Ji-yong (replacing regular cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung after he made the jump to Hollywood) loads each of his images with double (and sometimes triple) meanings, most notably present during a conversation scene in a stairwell.
Though it always wears its film noir influences prominently on its sleeve, Decision to Leave is not merely a slave to the past. Chan-wook and frequent collaborator/co-writer Seo-kyeong Jeong inject the film with modern sensibilities. Smartphones, often the hindrance of many mystery films, are brilliantly employed. A language translating app is relied upon to bridge the gap between the two Hae-jun and Seo-rae, with subtle details sometimes being lost in translation. There are also delayed text messages and warped video/audio recordings that endlessly twist and turn the facts.
You can sometimes feel lost while watching the film, as if you missed some important revelation that brings everything together. These are the moments where Chan-wook leans more on his Phantom Thread inspirations than his Hitchcockian ones. Much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, the characters within Decision to Leave can’t be tied down with simple explanations. Manipulation and intrigue are the names of the game, with the unspoken sexual tension tinging the edges of every scene. As the playfully dangerous duo, Hae-il and Wei are more than up to the task, with their unmatched chemistry doing wonders for the film’s emotional themes.
Decision to Leave is often a paradox in itself. It’s classical, yet modern. Cold, yet sexy. Unsatisfying, yet enthralling. Luckily, it finds the near-perfect balance between all of those things, creating a wondrous genre exercise that must be seen to be wholly believed.