‘Decision to Leave,’ Park Chan-wook’s Stylish and Sexy Noir Thriller, Heats Up Cannes

·5 min read
Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival

It’s a feature of Olympic sports-watching that, in the early heats of, say, a gymnastics final or an ice-skating competition, one watches the lesser contenders with a degree of wonder, marveling at their somersaults and triple salchows, and fancying for a second that they stand a chance at a prize—before, that is, the favorite comes on and performs a series of quadruple toe-loops with such ease, such clearly superior grace, that those first players look like lumbering clowns, and you wonder why you ever appreciated their banal flips.

The arrival of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook’s latest film in the Cannes competition created a similar disconnect, in the sense that it attempts so much more than other films and succeeds in everything that it undertakes: a riot of colors, a feast of cinematic composition, with sublime edits that make one scene seem to simply melt into the next. Park’s casual acts of cinematic magic—all the delightful tricks up his sleeve that make his films so pleasurable an experience—make other artists’ films seem leaden and dull in comparison. Decision to Leave, although a flawed film (especially in its final stretch, which sheds a bit of the punchy pizzazz of the first 90 minutes), is full to the gills with a particularly giddy virtuosity, one which could see Park Chan-wook land a sizable prize by the end of the week.

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Decision to Leave is best described as a revisionist noir, in the vein of Vertigo or Basic Instinct (the film appears to reference both those films), in the sense that it is a story of a detective’s obsession with an ambiguous, seductive woman. As in Basic Instinct, what draws the cop in is partly the sense that she may be guilty. Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a married investigator, living in stifling coupledom with his natural therapies-enjoying girlfriend, when the peculiar case of a mountaineer who has fallen to a suspicious death lands in his lap. Very early on, he comes to suspect the victim’s girlfriend, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a beautiful young woman of Chinese origin, who he begins to follow and with whom he embarks on a tentative relationship. From this point onwards, the question of Seo-rae’s intentions, as played with superb ambiguity by Tang Wei, remain a mystery. This widow could be manipulating Hae-joon for her own ends, or a lonely soul who has found a kind of salve, a kinship at last.

If the bare bones of this storyline sound formulaic, Park’s execution of his plot is far from rote. With consciously Hitchcockian inventiveness and a verve all his own, he pulls the story in a number of different and unusual directions, while proposing a never less than hypnotizing aesthetic. So Hae-joon and Seo-rae’s correspondence with one another, leveraging voice notes, texts and audio messages, is brilliantly turned into a mesmerizing epistolary; there are visual metaphors of tortoises and flowers, of water and mountains; there are reflections in pools filled with bloodied water, in mirrors and surveillance cameras. All of these dimensions, used so playfully, transport Park’s film to dizzying heights. For example, an astonishing early edit sets the tone, in which Hae-joon, having somewhat joyless intercourse with his partner, thinks back to the case he is investigating, and an X-ray of the deceased’s bones turns into the clenching and unclenching fingers of his girlfriend. This device doesn’t just tell us about Hae-joon’s creeping obsession, but it casts it in a sexual dimension, and delivers a hit of pure cinematic pleasure given its immaculate execution.

Decision to Leave continues to pop in exactly this manner, almost until the end, and these delicious shortcuts, these visual finds, always serve the narrative so well, because they obviate the need for exposition; they manage to commingle what is real and what is imaginary (criminal hypothesis, gnawing paranoia, growing obsession) in ways that are both organic and spicy.

After Hae-joon has apparently solved the case of the suspicious mountain death, and bid Seo-rae adieu, the story carries on in a way that appears counterintuitive—but this is because there is unfinished business between the lovers here, and Park still wants to toy with the noir formula. His intentions are well and good, but there is a clear drop in intensity in this last section, because the tension we had felt in suspecting Seo-rae has now fallen off. Instead, we are left with something else, which is now—instead of a crime investigation with an ever shifting ground—a love story that we can equally not place. What was the nature of Seo-rae’s feelings for the police officer whose life she turned upside down, if any? This slide into a further dimension, where romance mirrors crime and we are forced to play detectives of the heart, enriches the film’s narrative, but it also detracts somewhat from its thumping power.

In his nifty story of an ambiguous love, of a man and woman bonded together by ever-developing forces, Park doesn’t only tell a story of sexual magnetism, but manages to train his eye over a changing society. Not for nothing, for example, is Seo-rae a Chinese woman in Korean society, whose life has led her to aspire and activate for a better existence. Park is also lightly satirical of gender relations, and of absurd new-age-y beliefs; his is a gleaming world of comfortably rich people in a world of desperation.

In a beautifully-turned moment, Seo-rae interprets Hae-joon’s bitter words toward her (“I am completely shattered”) after she has all but broken him, as a confession of love. In this film, love and being wrecked, smashed into smithereens, are one and the same—and the film’s final act of suspense is in letting us guess who, if anybody, will make it out in one piece.

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