Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave plays like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, albeit with a twist. It isn’t self-referential or reflexive at all to Hitchcock’s influence unlike Brian De Palma’s Body Double, which is an outright and overt homage to Vertigo. The very base of the detective’s beguilement is, simply, similar to Scotty’s attachment to Madeline in Hitchcock’s movie and frankly, every story that deals with such themes can be related to Vertigo, the most beloved movie of its kind. Chan-wook, known for Oldboy and The Handmaiden, his latest film which likewise premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, handles this detective story of moral lines and passion with a deft touch.
The film is a murder mystery tale that follows Park Hae-il’s detective, Hae-jun, who is enchanted by Seo Rae, the wife of a supposedly murdered mountain climber. Seo Rae (Tang Wei) is the subject of Hae-jun’s murder investigation. The two of them become acquainted over the course of many sessions of interrogation. As a detective, Hae-jun is known for being thorough and often staking out all of his suspects, which he does here. Upon peeping through the curtains using his binoculars from his car on many nights, the detective becomes a little obsessive and feels an attachment to his suspect.
Decision to Leave is possibly the most involving Cannes premiere to debut this year, this is thanks to some odd, hyper-personalized and expressionistic techniques that Chan-wook harnesses. The spectator is often placed directly in the perspective of the characters, limiting the scope of our vision which puts the audience in a more subjective seat than an observational position. Traditional framing rules are thrown out of the window. Chan-wook goes further with this as he places Hae-jun in the room with Seo Rae, as he narrates his observations into the audio recorder on his watch all the way from his car. This can be sometimes disorientating, but one gets used to it as Chan-wook repeats it over and over. It is quite the innovative, and immersive, technique.
The way the narrative unravels itself and the murders that are put upon our detective’s desk relates to Stockholm syndrome, a term first used in 1973 when hostages in the middle of a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden defended their captors. The connection between the two leads is an unusual one, as Seo Rae is connected to multiple murders. The feelings the duo have for each other come across as real and tangible, despite the odd circumstances, which is a testament to both Park Hae-il and Tang Wei. They both deliver captivating performances in this suspense-filled thriller that keeps one on-edge throughout.
The film is exquisitely crafted, cinematographer Kim Ji-yong captures the often bewildering movements of Seo Rae in a stylistically invigorating manner, whilst also capturing the baffled reactions of Hae-jun to great effect. Each revelation is intriguing, one is compelled and pulled further into Chan-wook’s grasp at every turn. However, the film becomes slightly disjointed as it moves onto the next case, a whole thirteen months later. Almost everything has changed, but also hasn’t at the same time as we go to Ipa, a misty South Korean city that Hae-jun moves to, to be closer with his wife. In what is not a coincidence at all, Seo Rae shows up with a new, very much so alive husband, revealing they also moved to Ipa. This tests the detective on a moral level as he is split on his two options: give in to infedelity or ignore his feelings. The happenstance nature of this narrative shift is quite disorientating, even as everything is explained as a fair bit of the behind the scenes, murderous machinations remain shrouded in mystery.
While the film may run a bit too long for its own good, Park Chan-wook delivers a gripping detective thriller that is among the best films to premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Tang Wei pulls off miracle work, making her character the beguiling figure that Hae-jun sees her as, a mysterious and unexplainable femme fatale.
This review is from the Cannes Film Festival. MUBI will release Decision to Leave in the U.S.
Photo: 2022 CJ ENM Co., Ltd., MOHO FILM