Ever since it was first announced to be playing in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Park Chan-Wook’s Decision to Leave (his first film in six years after his 2016 masterpiece The Handmaiden) has been feverishly anticipated. It’s an excitement that only built once Decision to Leave won him the Best Director prize at Cannes and it’s such a pleasure to announce, as it arrives, that it lives up to all the hype. Park’s latest is another triumph; a funny, thrilling, romantic, and mysterious story all wrapped up in an insanely stylish package.
Taking clear inspiration from classic romantic noirs, Decision to Leave opens with the sudden death of an abusive husband while he’s mountaineering in the countryside near Busan. It may well have been suicide or an accident, but suspicion naturally falls on his beautiful younger Chinese wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei, best known for her work in Ang Lee’s Lust Caution). To investigate, the police bring in their most-respected local detective inspector, the insomniac Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) who, inevitably, falls swiftly under Seo-rae’s spell.
Whether or not this is a deliberate move from Seo-rae is teased out very slowly across Decision to Leave’s story, but the attraction appears mutual, and the pair are soon far, far closer than any suspect and investigator should be, throwing Hae-jun’s judgements into doubt. Most of the force is willing to believe in no foul play for the husband’s death, but the sheer strength of this central pairing’s chemistry makes them (and, to be fair, Hae-jun himself) troublingly unsure.
It’s a very easy relationship to buy into, achingly romantic, full of stolen looks and glancing touches but mostly devoid of any provocative physical intimacy (this is one of Park’s least explicit films). You believe that these two would love each other simply because it’s so easy for you to love them. In fact, the whole brilliantly written and acted cast are completely endearing – alongside the cadre of pilots in Top Gun Maverick, this is one of the most purely likable ensembles of any 2022 film.
Tang Wei is particularly magnificent, show-stoppingly gorgeous and vulnerable with just a little menace and a rascally sense of humour, while Park Hae-il has the right amount of goofiness to him to convince as a hopeless romantic. Park’s script, co-written with Seo-kyeong Jeong, is very funny, packed with visual gags and silly characters like Hae-jun’s stats-obsessed wife back at home and his various hilarious assistant detectives.
Set-pieces combine epic bombast with big laughs, like a foot chase that knocks the wind out of all its participants but ends with a properly thrilling fight involving the film’s single best prop; a chainmail glove belonging to Hae-jun that allows him to confront knife-wielding attackers like some sort of medieval nobleman. Pretty much every sequence is pulled off with this kind of stylistic verve – Decision to Leave is shot and edited in a way that is viscerally exciting and often unique, kineticism added by wild camera moves and amazingly ambitious location work. A climactic search sequence at a roaring high tide is simply astonishing, an unforgettable way to close out the movie.
The score is great too and, though it’s not *quite* as dizzying as The Handmaiden, Decision to Leave is often exciting purely in its own formal confidence, never making the easy choice and always keeping a beating human heart beneath all the flashy stuff. If you’re looking for the pure twisty action of Oldboy or The Handmaiden, you may be a bit disappointed – this is a much slower and more earnestly straightforward film than either of those – but if you buy in to Decision to Leave’s wavelength from the off, it’s one of the year’s most complete and entertaining offerings.