Cannes 2022: Park Chan-wook's Tender Thriller 'Decision to Leave'
by Alex Billington
May 25, 2022
Falling in love is unique to each and everyone one of us, indescribable and yet extraordinary. We all express our love differently, and interact with our loved ones in our own special ways. How do you capture this on camera? Filmmakers have been telling love stories on the big screen since the very beginning of cinema, and it's a vital element of its evolution. Which brings us to the newest example of cinema evolving through an exceptional love story. Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook is already well known and loved, celebrated for his iconic Vengeance series (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) from the early 2000s. As we all grow older, I believe that most people get softer and sweeter, becoming more romantic and tender as they appreciate the little things in life that continue to bring them joy and warmth day after day. It seems as if Park has evolved as well, with his latest film Decision to Leave he's made a surprisingly tender film that isn't as dark or as twisted as the rest of the features in his oeuvre, but is still as masterful and moving.
Decision to Leave, originally 헤어질 결심 (Heojil kyolshim) in Korean, is Park Chan-wook's 11th feature film. Co-written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung (Lady Vengeance, Family Matters, I'm a Cyborg But That's OK, Thirst, The Handmaiden, The Truth Beneath), and directed by Park, the film is without question one of the best out of any film showing at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It's one of my favorites of the fest, and I'm already looking forward to watching it again. There's so much more to dig into once you understand the story and where it's going, what it's saying, and how the two main characters connect. At the start we're introduced to an experienced detective named Hae-joon, played by Park Hae-il, working in Busan. There aren't many murders in modern South Korea anymore, even though that's his forte. He's sent to investigate the intriguing death of a man who fell climbing an iconic mountain near the city, looking into whether it's a murder. His wife, played by Tang Wei, is the key suspect and becomes an object of affection for Hae-joon.
For most of the first half, the film plays like a modern noir investigate thriller, following Hae-joon around as he tries to figure out what exactly happened to this climber. There are two distinct aspects of the film that stand out in particular - first is the way Park Chan-wook has brought classic Korean detective stories into the modern day world with ever-present technology surrounding us. I try to watch Korean films all the time, and this one feels so different than most in how technology is integrated and used throughout. Everything is exactly as it should be in the modern world – recordings and videos and photos on phones; public database searches aren't a "can you do this?" they just happen; video cameras everywhere, evidence is harder to hide. Details that become important in the case include how many steps someone took as listed in their phone, and YouTube recordings where the murdered explains details about his climb before something happens to them. It is so refreshing to see this all built in and handled so effortlessly by Park and his production team.
The second distinct aspect of Park's Decision to Leave that's breathtakingly impressive is the gorgeously intertwined love story connection between Hae-joon and his main suspect, the mysteriously alluring Tang Wei. She is a Chinese citizen who moved to Korea years ago, and she doesn't yet speak perfect Korean even though she tries, often translating her responses directly through her phone. As the two interact and slowly become more and more intimate, the film utilizes a number of tricks and techniques to bring them closer together - both literally and metaphorically. This is one of those rare examples of a filmmaker inventing an entirely new "language of cinema" and it might take multiple viewings to truly understand it. One of his tricks involves putting Park Hae-il right into the scenes with Tang Wei, as he imagines himself being with her during his investigations, and the film visualizes this having him standing in the same scene observing her. It's simple but so lovely to watch, especially as shot by DP Kim Ji-yong and edited by Kim Sang-Bum.
As their relationship continues, and his investigation reaches its end with this climber, the film begins to twist and then pivots into something else entirely - where it continues during the second half. This is not surprising for Park Chan-wook, who almost always slips a few twists into his screenplays. However, the key here is that even though everyone expects something dark and crazy and jaw-dropping, that's not what this film is. It's actually offering us a story that is much more tender, something more delightful as the next chapter in their romance begins and progresses to an obvious Park chan-wook ending. I would say this is Park's In the Mood for Love. There's an extraordinary amount of brilliant nuance that will be figured out as this film unravels in cinemas. Their relationship is as swoon-worthy and as meaningful as In the Mood for Love, and will become as iconic once audiences get a chance to watch this film. More than a detective story about solving crimes, Decision to Leave is a masterful, exquisite romance that makes your heart beat faster.
In addition to all the masterful filmmaking and fabulous trickery, the film is built upon two unforgettable performances from Park Hae-il and Tang Wei. Both of them deserve to be talked about for years and years. These are the kind of performances that will be analyzed & critiqued endlessly, as the nuance is so powerful that it's rather overwhelming. The first time you watch this film it might be hard to pick up on everything going on between these two: the sexual tension hidden within their eyes, the subtle glances and twitches and palpitations that represent their repressed feelings. Even if what they say and how they move seems to go against what they're feeling, Park has perfectly captured their emotions deep within. And that is the core of Decision to Leave, as it ultimately isn't really about some dark twisted murders, or some brutal killings, or anything like that. It's a love story. It kept me guessing, took my breath away, made me want to stand up and cheer at the end. Bravo, Park! Even if it doesn't play out the way you want or hope… it's still beautiful.