Decision to Leave (2022)
Written by Jeong Seo-kyeong & Park Chan-wook
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Part of me is surprised at the moderate reviews Decision to Leave has garnered from audiences. However, I can understand it if you focus entirely on the plot. This is an homage to Hitchcock that is very obvious from the start. The shadow of Vertigo looms large, and that’s not a bad thing. A good crime thriller is rare, and South Korea certainly knows how to make good movies. It’s a pairing that meshes perfectly. But yes, you’ll not be blown away by the story, at least on the surface. It’s still a tremendously compelling story. Where Decision to Leave blew me away was with the cinematography. Holy shit! Park Chan-wook is one of the greatest directors of all time, but you forget in between watching his movies. Then when you sit down and watch one, it doesn’t take long to be reminded you are in the hands of a genuine master of the form. There are shots in this movie that blew my fucking mind! Even a person simply driving from one location to another always looks interesting. The camera is always put in a spot you wouldn’t expect, and it always works.
Detective Hae-Jun (Park Hae-il) spends his life between the cities of Busan, where he does his work, and Ipo, where his wife works because of her job as a nuclear engineer. Hae-Jun and Jung-An have a decent marriage, but the absence of each other in their lives is wearing on them. Then, a case falls into the detective’s lap that uproots his entire life. Kid Do Soo, a retired immigration worker, is found dead at the foot of a mountain he often climbed. Soo was married to Seo-Rae (Tang Wei), a much younger Chinese immigrant who now works as a caretaker of the elderly. She doesn’t show much grief upon the news of her husband’s death, putting her on the suspects’ shortlist. Hae-Jun begins sitting outside her apartment at night, watching her and becoming increasingly obsessed. He eventually learns that Seo-Rae has killed someone, but under circumstances that could be seen as benevolent. Still, something doesn’t seem right. Very quickly, the dutiful detective is pulled under by this femme fatale as he uncovers the truth about what she has done while seeing his own life unraveled.
Decision to Leave is a film showing Park as a filmmaker operating at the top of his game. Very few directors currently alive are making movies this stylish, dynamic, and still connected to the human condition. I don’t know what is in the water in South Korea, but it has produced some fantastic artists in visual mediums. Not to underplay the performances, these actors, especially Tang Wei, are phenomenal, but two production members are Park’s MVPs. Those would be cinematographer Kim Ji-Yong and editor Kim Sang-beom.
Kim Ji-Yong has been making his way through films without major stand-outs (at least for me) until this one. He did work in the camera & electrical departments of Okja and Parasite, so I expect the cinematographer was learning a lot on these and other productions. This may be anathema for some, but I think Decision to Leave looks better than any of Bong Joon-ho’s movies. Kim Sang-beom is a veteran of Park’s films, editing Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and more. The editor clearly knows what he’s doing and, just like his director, is just working at the top of his game. So much of this makes it look easy when I know these creators certainly busted their asses to make Decision an immaculate movie.
This picture has some of the best pacing I’ve seen in any movie, and many contemporary filmmakers need to be watching closely. The runtime is over two hours, but I never felt it once. No scene overstays its welcome, but if there is a need for an extended sequence, Kim Sang-beom is cutting so that we never become bogged down. He shifts perspectives between characters, he goes to interesting exterior shots of interior scenes or vice versa, he does away with time dragging things out when it’s more important to cut to the chase, or on the flip side, he makes us linger in moments to emphasize their importance. Every aspect of production here is masterclass level and made me want to give a standing ovation when the end credits rolled, which would have been sort of odd watching the movie in my apartment.
Park Chan-wook has once again delivered another perfect movie. He is an endless fount of great cinema. I like that we have these gaps in between because they force us to savor what he’s made. If the director was cranking them out every other year, then that care & attention to beauty would probably be lost on us. Decision to Leave continues the streak of South Korean cinema, putting much of the rest of the world to shame. Undoubtedly, this will be a best-of-the-year contender on my and so many others’ lists.