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‘Decision to Leave’ Rounds Out Park Chan-wook’s Virtuosic Résumé

Compared to the brutal, exacting nature of his most renowned work, the Korean director’s latest film is more like a trip to the spa

Ringer illustration

The signature sequence of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s career is surely the hallway showdown in 2003’s Oldboy, a brutal fugue of mortal combat wryly channeling old-school, side-scrolling, video-game aesthetics. The setup is exploitation-movie perfection: After spending years forcibly holed up in a hotel room at the mercy of an unknown enemy, Oh Dae Su (Choi Min-sik) emerges from his solitary confinement like an exterminating angel, wielding a claw hammer against anybody in his path. Outnumbered 40-to-1, he asks his enemies to be mindful of their respective blood types, since he’s planning to spill so much of it; for a few mesmerizing minutes, the character’s ferocious virtuosity aligns perfectly with his director’s formalist vision.

With its adrenalized action and memorably bleak ending, Oldboy was hyped as the crown jewel of the emerging South Korean New Wave, which saw Park and his countrymen Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, and Kim Ki-duk take global cinema by storm in the early 2000s. Taken together, the group’s violent, inventive films suggested a country’s pent-up internal tension and, aided by critical acclaim and savvy marketing, Oldboy went on to make $15 million in its international release. When a Cannes jury headed by Quentin Tarantino handed Park a major prize, it felt like the passing of a torch—or maybe a solid gold watch.

Although written as a standalone narrative, Oldboywhich will return to theaters next year for a 20th anniversary re-release via Neon—was the middle installment of a trilogy bookended by the symmetrically conceived Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005). The common denominator between the three films was their queasy, clinical fascination with the self-destructive psychology of retribution; in each, there’s an understanding that demanding an eye for an eye is a good way to make the world go blind. At the end of Oldboy, Oh Dae Su gets revenge but not satisfaction; confronted with his own sins at the close, he disfigures himself in a fit of justified guilt. The finale of Lady Vengeance, in which a group of grieving parents confront and collectively mutilate a serial child murderer, walks a razor-wire tightrope between sick comedy and emotional pornography. It’s fair to be amused, or appalled, but it’s nearly impossible not to respond. “I don’t feel enjoyment watching films that evoke passivity,” Park said while promoting Oldboy. “If you need that kind of comfort, I don’t understand why you wouldn’t go to a spa.”

Compared to the bruising entries in the Vengeance Trilogy—or for that matter, Park’s English-language crossover Stoker, with its conjoined scenes of masturbation and murder—Park’s new feature Decision to Leave is a bit like a trip to the spa: slow, placid, absorbing, replenishing. It’s also arguably his best and most controlled piece of filmmaking since Oldboy, a worthy choice this May at Cannes for a Best Director citation and a preliminary contender in the Oscars’ Best International Feature category. Cowritten by Park with Jeong Seo-kyeong, the film is a procedural mystery about a cop infatuated with a potential murder suspect, and its quietly pressurized elegance is a welcome change of pace. The same over-the-top sensibility that made Oldboy irresistible to the artsploitation brigade has, on occasion, hampered Park’s work as much as it’s helped it. The three films the director released following Lady Vengeance—the quirky sci-fi rom-com I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK; the Gothic vampire romance Thirst; and Stoker—felt palpably like the work of a director trying to live up to past triumphs, exercises in excess splattered not only with blood but flop sweat.

Sandwiching explicit lesbian sex scenes amidst hairpin plot twists, the outrageously lascivious period thriller The Handmaiden (2016) had a much better ratio of perspiration to inspiration. A daring satire about domestic servitude, the film’s hothouse atmosphere was wonderfully fertile for comedy and eroticism, with enough sadistic cruelty and torture on display in the margins to appease its director’s edgelord constituency. In Oldboy, Park had asked his leading man to eat a live octopus on-screen as a gesture of commitment, but the cephalopod lurking in the background of The Handmaiden’s revenge narrative felt more like a symbol of the director’s nimble, light-fingered finesse. Without ever being particularly sentimental, The Handmaiden’s stealth love story coaxed out the filmmaker’s brooding, romantic side—a sensibility which blooms more fully in Decision to Leave. “I didn’t want [the film] to just be a police procedural with a romantic sub-plot,” Park told The Hollywood Reporter. “I wanted these two elements to be completely combined, as if there were a chemical reaction and they had become completely amalgamated.”

The fusion works: Decision to Leave is a mystery dealing with the enigmas of the human heart. At its core, it’s a story about two characters whose gradual, mutual recognition that they’re perfect for each other is a source of frustration rather than fulfillment. The same precise, precarious conditions that have brought them together are also guaranteed to keep them apart.

The film’s story is told primarily from the point of view of Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a Busan-based detective whose accomplishments on the job are well beyond his years: He’s a prodigy and a workaholic who’s wired to be never be satisfied, even by the cases he closes. The eyedrops he carries on his person at all times testify to a bloodshot, insomniac dedication to his craft. As the film opens, our master sleuth is confronted with a genuine baffler: a body lying broken and mangled on the ground underneath a cliff. It’s a gory scene, but it doesn’t necessarily point to foul play, and the only person who could really be a suspect has an alibi. That’d be the victim’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant who’s not exactly broken up over what’s probably going to go into the books as a hiking accident or suicide. Seo-rae is an elder care worker who’s much kinder about her octogenarian clients than her late husband. But to paraphrase Sharon Stone’s character in Basic Instinct, a movie whose noirish shadow falls over Decision to Leave as surely as the collected works of Alfred Hitchcock: What are they going to do, arrest her for not being sad enough?

To say that Hae-jun’s interest in Seo-rae is not strictly professional would be an understatement. From the moment he first lays eyes on her in an interrogation room (shades, again, of Basic Instinct), he’s down bad. Tang, who broke through in Ang Lee’s excellent Lust, Caution before working with Michael Mann on Blackhat, has one of those faces that magnetizes the camera, and her performance suggests a woman who knows her behavior is being scrutinized; with every furtive, seductive gesture, it’s as if she’s daring the cop—and the audience—to see something suspicious. For his part, Hae-jun is happily married to the doting, beautiful Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun), a kind woman who’s seemingly made peace with her husband’s late hours and haunted psychology. But he nevertheless keeps spending his nights parked outside Seo-rae’s house, stakeouts that eventually become a form of voyeuristic courtship.

Because Hae-jun keeps an apartment in Busan, he’s able to hide his obsession from Jung-an, who mostly stays at their shared seaside residence outside of the city. Seo-rae, though, knows she’s being watched, and her response is, like everything else she does, carefully calculated and difficult to gauge. She allows this weary, congenitally stressed-out police officer into her life without ever pushing to consummate what seems to be a mutual attraction. Instead of sleeping with him, she starts taking care of him, tenderly and sexlessly, in what could be either a parody of her rent-paying caregiver gig or a withering mockery of what she learns is his increasingly dispassionate marriage. Or maybe it’s a long game meant to keep a capable investigator from exploring certain troubling ambiguities around her husband’s demise; the way she talks him to sleep with calming images of the sea hints at a deeper form of mental manipulation.

Park loves convoluted narratives filled with time jumps and reversals; he never settles for simple when complicated will do. Decision to Leave starts getting devilishly tricky around its midpoint, when Seo-rae appears one day with another man in tow: a second husband who, it turns out, is not long for this world. To lose one spouse may be regarded as misfortune, but to lose both looks like carelessness, and Hae-jun is forced to confront the troubling thoughts he’s been having from the start: that Seo-rae is a cold-blooded killer, and that he’s aided and abetted her as a byproduct of his devotion. In Basic Instinct, the question of Catherine Tramell’s guilt hung over the story until the final frame. Here, it’s less important whether Seo-rae has done bad things (or why) than how Hae-jun feels about them—if murder is just collateral damage in the search for true love.

At 138 minutes, Decision to Leave has the running time of an epic, and yet it feels swift and efficient. The visual style is tamped down in a way that consistently serves and clarifies the stakes of the story. There are only a couple of sequences where Park seems to be flexing his directorial muscles: a rooftop foot chase that’s so incidental to the plot that it almost plays as knowing auteurist self-parody, and a late set piece on a beach at high tide that conjures up the uncanny atmosphere of a tragic parable, or maybe an ancient ghost story. What finally links Oldboy and Decision to Leave is their obsessive, unsettling ambivalence about the idea of repression, the very human impulse to bury our guilt so deep that nobody will ever find it. In Oldboy, the concept plays out figuratively via the device of mind control, but Decision to Leave literalizes it in a climax that’s simultaneously morbid, elemental, and grimly mythic. Vanishing without a trace may seem like a perfect getaway, but that’s also its own sort of trap—a fate that serves as the perfect, melancholy grace note for a movie that keeps finding ways to get under our skin.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.