At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, South Korean auteur Park Chan-woo/박찬욱’s (like Baz Luhrmann, he’s more than a filmmaker) DECISION TO LEAVE was tipped by many critics to take home the Palme d’Or. That didn’t happen — the Best Picture award went to Ruben Östlund‘s TRIANGLE OF SADNESS — but Park did receive the festival’s Best Director award. It was well deserved as DECISION TO LEAVE is everything you would want in a stylish murder-mystery-romance… almost. I’m not quite as in love with this film as other film critics are.
Hae-joon (Park Hae-il/박해일) is a police detective in the southern city of Busan. While working on a case to apprehend two known felons, word comes of a body found at the base of a popular mountain that many people climb. The dead man’s watch reveals the time of the fall — Monday morning — and his phone contains photos of injuries sustained on a woman’s body. That woman turns out to be his beautiful, young wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei/湯唯, LUST, CAUTION), an illegal immigrant from China whose grandfather was a Korean war hero. Seo-rae, who is a trained nurse and a beloved caregiver, has a solid alibi though. She was with one of her clients at the time of the fall. As Hae-joon investigates the case, he becomes smitten with Seo-rae, and perhaps she with him, and he continues to surveil her long after he’s convinced of her innocence. Sometime later, Hae-joon has moved to Ipo, where his wife lives. Not much high-level crime happens in this sleepy seaside town until, one day, news comes of the murder of a popular on-air wealth advisor. The prime suspect is his wife, Seo-rae, but once again, she has a solid alibi.
DECISION TO LEAVE has a lot going for it, particularly the fabulously understated performance of Tang, who speaks in one of the (at least) four languages and dialects that she knows. Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong have wisely written that her character’s facility with Korean is limited, though to my untrained ears I couldn’t tell the difference, and there are a number of times when Seo-rae turns to iTranslate (she uses an iPhone) to help her find the right words to express her feelings. And it’s not just here where Park and Jeong weave everyday technology into the story. Both Hae-joon and Seo-rae use their smart watches to record their innermost thoughts, and there is one scene that perfectly illustrates the problem that can happen when two people text each other at the same time.
Is Seo-rae’s dress blue or green? Not everything is at it seems. Park deftly balances humour with numerous crosscuts and parallel editing to keep the audience on its toes. He stages a foot chase scene up a ridiculous number of stairs that leaves the characters gasping for air only to have them catch their breath barely long enough to continue their chase across a series of rooftops. He later seemingly puts two characters in the same room when, in fact, they’re really not. He also drops new characters and new situations into the story before we get to know who they are and why they are there.
Where the film doesn’t work for me, though, is the story, which I found to be overcooked and too drawn out. While the first death sets up the relationship between Hae-joon and Seo-rae, I think it could have been done away with altogether and the story written with the characters meeting after the death of her second husband. The way the story is written now, the second half of the film is rather rushed while the film’s closing scene goes on about five minutes too long. Without giving too much away, Park should have ended the movie when Hae-joon gets out of his car and walks up to Seo-rae’s. What happens after that is unnecessary, although many would argue that this is a romance and maybe it is.
So, yes, DECISION TO LEAVE is a well-made film and Park is deserving of the Best Director award. I’m just not as enamored with it as others are.
DECISION TO LEAVE opens in Hong Kong on July 21st. Check it out and tell me if you agree with me or not.
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