Decision to Leave – London Film Festival 2022 – Film Review

Decision to Leave as a new Park Chan-wook film, after the success of films such as the Oldboy trilogy and The Handmaiden, was bound to create excitement amongst cinephiles. Following its appearance at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where Park Chan-wook was awarded the Best Director prize, the film had high expectations bestowed upon it given the festival buzz. Rest assured, Decision to Leave does not disappoint with its haunting, engrossing painterly portrait of longing interspersed with intrigue set against a murder-mystery backdrop plus breath-taking cinematography. Chan-wook subverts existing genres by presenting a beautiful film of two halves, part murder-mystery and romance, each theme distinct in tone and rhythm which will enchant and confuse audiences. This, combined with a lingering rendition of The Mist- oft repeated as the film’s signature tune and a favourite of Chan-wook, will ensure that Decision to Leave will easily hypnotise many.

Chan-wook invites audiences to enjoy the seductive journey of falling in love, alongside its detective protagonist Hae-Joon played by Park Hae-il, with hypnotic slow pacing in scenes, lingering edits of its characters and locations plus that constant mist. This juxtaposition to the film’s beginning, it simply starts with a murder and some awe-inspiring cleverly edited vertiginous angles, impresses instantly. Obvious parallels can be drawn to Bong Joon Ho’s Memories of Murder, not least as Park Hae-il appears in both films, given the atypical close up angles and banter, that does not always land.

Decision to Leave changes tack however as Detective Hae-Joon becomes embroiled in a suspect’s life. With Tang Wei playing the enigmatic Seo-rae, Chan-wook appears to have been influenced by her compellingly enticing performance in Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, paying homage to its vibrant colour spectrum, romanticised rainy scenes and that green dress. The camera clearly loves Wei’s delicately captivating onscreen presence with a mesmerising performance imbuing both vulnerability and unpredictability. Decision to Leave therefore oozes subdued sexiness and an ongoing sensuality during its runtime. Chan-wook’s skill is unparalleled as he even makes everyday items such as hand cream and ChapStick seem sensual in the film.

Park Hae-il and Tang Wei in Decision to Leave
Park Hae-il and Tang Wei in Decision to Leave

Comparisons to Hitchcock films, given the cat and mouse film noiresque dynamics, have inevitably been made but Decision to Leave also resembles the police investigatory processes of David Fincher’s Zodiac. The film is also reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia with a similarly insomniac detective, but Hae-Joon has a penchant for using eye drops. Chan-wook’s editing focuses on this state of wakefulness with dream sequences depicting emotions and crime solving techniques via intuition and hunches, which seems to be a staple of police dramas in Korean cinema. There is also an emphasis placed on the importance of a good night’s sleep to be able to function or at least the use of neck massage tools in its place. Unfortunately, the boundaries of reality are often blurred leading to some puzzling scenes due to its elliptical structure.

Decision to Leave interweaves several bodily elements within its storyline with references to soft or rough hands. Mobile phones are perceived to be a bodily extension and eyes receive a great focus too, not least with the appearance of eye drops. The mobile phones possess a duality, they assist during the police investigation, act as a translating device between Chinese and Korean, but they are also sources of evidence and can be recording devices with striking resemblances to Agent Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks’ preference for recorded notes of cases. The film, at times, uneasily portrays voyeuristic elements, through many screens, providing that modern day affliction of constant monitoring where technology can be a friend or foe. Such subtleties ensure that Decision to Leave remains a compelling watch.

Chan-wook lures us into a visually spectacular dance where police mingle with suspects and marital neglect is explored. Whilst the action mainly takes place on the streets of Busan, home to several beaches and an international film festival, the film also showcases the steep inclines and mesmerising panoramic views of the city. Chan-wook appears to wish for the audience to soak up Busan’s environs fully with beautiful shots at Bunam Beach and Songgwangsa Temple. Decision to Leave is symbolically rich, with stunning artwork on walls and notebooks, which will demand several watches as it absorbs audiences within a world where characters repeat themselves and misty weather provides a haunting romanticism. The film’s premise may be simple but it transcends the limitations of a detective murder mystery with its analysis of the darker sides of the human psyche.

Tang Wei in Decision to Leave
Tang Wei in Decision to Leave

Chan-wook infuses his film with many artistic images to create beautiful imagery which is equally as tragic as it is poetic. The use of language is explored with misinterpretations between Korean and Chinese highlighting the complex cultural history between the two countries and the poetic sounds of language. Whilst Decision to Leave may be lengthy and is not an action fuelled film from start to finish, Chan-wook leaves us pensive having posed many questions without the reward of answers as we embark on the detective work too. When the film changes location so does its pace deliberately but Chan-wook expertly guides us through this rhythmic change.

Decision to Leave is a departure from some of Chan-wook’s more violent historic films, and may not please all of his fans, but it does provide a modern day twist on classic film noir and charts the director’s progression. It is a beautiful, elegantly understated and sumptuous film to provide food for the soul, as a cultural feast, and will stir up that wanderlust to visit such beautiful South Korean coasts.

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