A detective investigating a man’s death in the mountains meets the dead man’s mysterious wife in the course of his dogged sleuthing.
After the sad demise of the brilliant and iconic Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh (may it be saved somehow), it’s been a tough time for a cinema fan such as myself, but one thing that helps is getting new movies from Martin McDonagh and Park Chan-wook within a couple of weeks of each other – their first movies in 5 and 6 years respectively. Park’s latest is a romantic murder mystery centering on a detective who finds himself attracted to a widow who may or may not have had a hand in her husband’s murder. It follows a classic noir template with a femme fatale, dark, shifting and unclear motives, and a troubled detective who is struggling to make sense of the case, or indeed his life. Combining this with Park’s visual flair makes for a compelling movie that holds your attention throughout.
Our protagonist is Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), who eagle-eyed Korean cinema fans may notice played the suspected serial killer in Bong Joon-ho’s magnificent ‘Memories of Murder’, and we join him as he picks up a case of suspected suicide at the bottom of a steep cliff. The victim was an experienced climber who vlogged about his climbs, and Hae-jun is immediately suspicious about how he came to fell, particularly once he meets his widow, the beautiful and mysterious Chinese immigrant Seo-rae (Tang Wei). His suspicions are only heightened further when he learns more about her past and the fate of previous men she’d been in relationships, although at the same time it is countered by his growing infatuation with her. It’s never entirely clear if his fascination with the case is driven by his romantic feelings towards Seo-rae or his suspicions about her involvement, if anything it appears to be both and he can’t avoid them becoming intertwined – often at the same time.
Both Park Hae-il and Tang Wei are magnetic screen presences and you can’t help but be drawn to the intricate story that director Park spins, even as I did find it a little too convoluted at times, particularly as it layers on additional complexities both in the past and in the future – although the filming technique to insert Hae-jun into events as a watchful observer to demonstrate his thought process is a cracking bit of cinema. Park Hae-il is a relatable presence in the central role and you can feel how his disappointments in his own life feed into how he approaches the case and his feelings towards Seo-rae, with several well inserted commentary on male depression, mid-life crises that illuminate how his scattered approach to his work comes about.
‘Decision to Leave’ is expertly crafted cinema as we’ve come to expect from Park Chan-wook, although I did find its labyrinthine plot to be tricky to follow at times which did impact on my enjoyment. I didn’t find it quite as sharp as his last movie ‘The Handmaiden’, nor was it as viscerally violent as his earlier works (‘Oldboy’ et al), but this was a movie that shows a director exploring more mature themes whilst retaining the intrigue and mystery of his best works. If ever a film is likely to benefit from a rewatch, it’ll be this one.
Directed By: Park Chan-wook
Starring: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Lee Jung-hyun, Go Kyung-pyo, Park Yong-woo and Jung Yi-seo