The Korean auteur trades his signature maximalism for Hitchcockian smolder
The latest from master maximalist Park Chan-wook may surprise fans weaned on the explosive violence and graphic sex of The Handmaiden and Oldboy. While those films tapped into the exploitative pleasures of Brian De Palma, Decision to Leave’s simmering tension and psychosexual undercurrents are more reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a refreshing exercise in restraint for the director and demonstrates that even without sex and gore Park remains an unparalleled visual storyteller.
Park Hae-il stars as Detective Hae-jun, who is called in to investigate the falling death of a mountain climber. What should be a cut-and-dried case of accidental death becomes more complicated when Hae-jun interviews the victim’s beautiful young wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei, Lust, Caution). A Chinese immigrant who speaks broken Korean with the melodramatic flair of the soap operas she watches on TV, Seo-rae doesn’t seem particularly broken up about her husband’s death, particularly when she reveals the bruises he regularly left on her body. Unable to secure hard evidence against her, Hae-jun begins tracking her movements while nursing an attraction she seems to encourage.
Hitchcock influences abound in Decision to Leave, with Vertigo being a primary source of inspiration. A death by falling from a great height; a debilitated detective (for Jimmy Stewart it was the titular vertigo, for Detective Hae-jun it’s insomnia); and the sexual desire and obsession with a mysterious woman. Park is no doubt aware of these similarities, and uses the opportunity to interrogate the tropes common to Hitch’s work, such as subtle subversions of Vertigo’s gender politics. Hae-jun allows himself to become entangled in his attraction to the beautiful young suspect, but his partner points out that if she were an ordinary Korean man, he’d investigate the case with complete dispassion. This is further emphasized when Seo-rae speaks more complicated Chinese phrases into her phone, which spits out the Korean translations in a male voice. Seo-rae is overall a far more complex character than Hitchcock’s doomed blondes, at once a victim of circumstance and a savvy manipulator. Both Tang and Park give superb and complex performances, keeping the white-hot sexual tension between the pair expertly tamped down to a smolder.
Watching a Park Chan-wook film one is reminded how starved Western audiences are for rich, daring visuals. The tone of the film may be more subdued than his recent work, but the style remains characteristically cranked to 11. The intense colors and striking geology of the Korean landscape are as mesmerizing as the film’s more adventurous angles, like the view of a fly walking on a corpse’s eyeball — from the perspective of the corpse. Like Hitchcock, Park finds time for plenty of humor to offset the darker elements (a gag involving soft-shell turtle bandits is a highlight). But make no mistake: as much as Hitchcock is an influence on Decision to Leave, this is a work that stands entirely on its own.
As beautifully crafted as it is, at nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes there’s a definite shagginess as the film enters its meandering third act. Thematic repetition begins to feel like monotony, and as compelling as Tang and Park are to watch together, one can only hear them ask “are you following me?,” “what are you doing here?,” and “what do you mean?” so many times before wondering when they’re just going to get to the point already. The film has received mixed reviews since it premiered at Cannes, and it’s understandable that its slow-burn tension would frustrate those expecting that signature Park Chan-wook spectacle. Like its characters, this is a film that doesn’t easily reveal its true intentions, and demands multiple viewings to pull apart all of its layers. Decision to Leave announces itself as a new classic in a murmur, not a shout.
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