Decision to Leave brings back Park Chan-wook’s oldest obsessions

Back around 2006, if you asked a cinephile what Park Chan-wook’s deal was as a filmmaker, the answer would have been nice and simple: “He’s the Korean revenge-movie guy.” Park’s “vengeance trilogy” — the unrelated but simpatico dark thrillers Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance — crossed international borders during an era where it was rarer to see America fielding breakout hits from other countries than it is today. Twisty plotting, intense violence and stunning action sequences are just some of the many highlights. Oldboy’s famous “hammer and a hallway” fight helped put Park’s name on the map, but these three films (not his first, but at the time his most famous) also pigeonholed him as a director with very specific interests and tastes.

Since then, Park has been harder to pin down. His 2009 horror movie Thirst This is a dark vampire love story with a touch of humor. Park’s English-language debut Stoker This is an oddball misfire that pits Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode against each other in a kind lush drawing-room psychodrama that balances horror story and period piece. Park was involved in spying. The Little Drummer Girl, romcoms with I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, and literary historical crime drama with The Handmaiden. His latest creation, the exquisitely crafted Decent to Leave, is both a police procedural and a love story, the kind of film that drifts lightly from one genre to another, and doesn’t fully land until the final devastating moments.

Photo by MUBI

Decent to Leave does clarify a specific agenda for Park’s highly divergent filmography: He’s a man obsessed with obsession. His protagonists keep having a compulsive idea and chase it relentlessly no matter what. It can often cost them everything. In Oldboy, it’s a man obsessed with finding out who locked him up in a makeshift cell for 15 years, then dumped him on the street without explanation. In Thirst, it’s a vampire bent on self-destruction. People become obsessed with one another in his love stories. This pulls them off their old tracks and puts them on new paths. Und in Decision to Leave it’s a man obsessed with solving a murder, even if it destroys him and the woman he loves.

From the start, the film presents police detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il, from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder) as a man who doesn’t fully know how to exist outside of his job. On weekdays, he lives in the city and visits his wife for subdued sex and friendly time together. But he seems to be lost at night when his mind wanders, especially when he is suffering from insomnia. Park and his co-writer Jeong Seo–kyeong take a while to discover exactly where his mind is in the darkness.

When Hae-jun is called out on what seems like an accidental-death case, he meets the dead man’s soft-spoken widow, Seo-rae (Lust or Caution’s Tang Wei). He carefully considers the possibility that she might have orchestrated a clever, well-planned murder. He becomes mildly obsessed with her at the same time. The two pursue a cautious, non-physical relationship — Park has said one of his major inspirations on the film was David Lean’s 1945 melodrama Brief encounterTwo married couples have an affair that goes beyond kisses, and it’s about them. In the process, though, Seo-rae begins to get under Hae-jun’s carefully crafted shell, exposing the obsessions he doesn’t reveal to anyone else.

Decent to Leave While they may take many dramatic narrative turns, they never feel like a surprise! Plot! Twists! They leave audiences gasping and trying desperately to catch up. It’s a slow-burn movie, paced more like a Wong Kar-wai romance (In the Mood For Love comes to mind often throughout this movie) than like Park’s early potboiler thrillers. At 138 minutes long, it’s paced for patient viewers who want to linger in the quiet spaces that grow between detective and suspect, and ponder each new bit of evidence in the murder case as it surfaces. It’s a particularly rich version of a whodunit, but it still follows the form, with one clue building on another as Hae-jun’s suspicions coalesce.

Seo-rae (Tang Wei) looks through a car window in a parking lot in Decision to Leave

Photo by MUBI

Decent to Leave Park’s shocking extremes will eventually be revealed, but before that, the film needs to attract a crowd who enjoys fine craft and elegant world-building. Early on, Hae-jun learns that Seo-rae is from China; when she meets new people, she apologizes for her “inadequate” Korean, though the subtitles never suggest she speaks clumsily. But when she’s positive she wants to be understood, she speaks into a translator app on her phone, and stares Hae-jun down as the device explains things to him in frank but poetic language. Seo-rae spends her time caring for elderly women at their homes. Hae-jun follows her lead and ends up doing the same. He is now a freelance writer. the classic Korean song “Mist,” Which defines his relationship with you Seo-rae. The movie returns over and over to the idea that Hae-jun has his clothes carefully tailored to add extra pockets, which are full of everything a person might need — something both his wife and Seo-rae casually take advantage of.

These little grace notes are just distractions until they become clear enough times to be defining character traits and ways of understanding each other. Both of them hide a lot from the outside world and each other, including their feelings for one another. Park and Jeong make their leads clear through side details. This makes them both sharp and incisive enough for each other to interpret what those details mean. At first glance, Decent to Leave This may not sound like the kinda romance that makes fans swoon. But as these small character angles gradually build toward a larger portrait, it becomes clear that it’s a different kind of fantasy altogether, about people who care enough — and can see clearly enough — to fully understand each other, even if they rarely verbalize that understanding.

That isn’t all that’s on Park’s mind with Decent to Leave, which ultimately lays out a second murder mystery that complicates the leads’ romance all over again, before crashing to a stunning ending. But while the procedural story takes up a fair bit of screen time, the emotional story is the center of the film, and the one that’s likely to stick with audiences longest and most clearly. It lacks the same verve and dynamism as his early action films, but it is a story. As a portrait of obsession and regret, it’s remarkably sophisticated and satisfying. Park still cares about obsession, driving anger, and suppressed sadness — all the things that preoccupied him as a younger filmmaker. Park now expresses these interests differently, using soft conversations in memorable locations instead of the blunt end a hammer.

Decent to Leave, South Korea’s 2022 submission for the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film category, opens in America in limited theatrical release on Oct. 14, with a wider rollout beginning Oct. 21.

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