Park Chan-wook spins a frustrating, borderline incomprehensible Hitchcock-like noir about a detective and a mysterious widow
Few modern filmmakers have shown an aptitude for juggling multiple story threads in films of non-chronological design more than the Korean master Park Chan-wook, whose twisty, erotic The Handmaiden – surely one of the great films of the 21st century – stands as a testament to his ability to effortlessly connect the dots in the face of a fiercely convoluted narrative. So it is with a heavy heart that I must denounce his latest feature, the cop procedural-cum-romantic drama Decision to Leave, on the basis that it is a bordeline impenetrable experience from start to finish.
In a plot ripped right from the Hitchcock playbook (and mostly riffing on Vertigo), our story begins in media res, as Busan detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), already struggling with a murder case, is tasked with investigating the death of a climber whose body has been found at the base of a famous climbing rock. Enter Seo-rae (Tang Wei), elegant, beautiful, and definitely a suspect, who Hae-joon – already married to another woman – quickly finds is the sole occupant of his thoughts.
The film unravels as a series of set-ups and reveals built around the interactions between these potential lovers. But this is an almost-thriller where one's patience – and you will require a lot of it to make it through the film's 138 minute runtime – feels unequal to its rewards. The sheer volume of information that flies at us over the course of Decision makes for an incredibly dense – not to mention visually inventive – ride, but it's a film that never quite convinces us why we should care about these people and their problems.
Whereas in The Handmaiden, Park intricately signposted everything so that the final puzzle slotted together in a succession of deeply satisfying clicks (flipping the narrative on its head not once, but three times), Decision offers very little of the same pleasures. The movie indulges endless time-jumping, as though daring you to keep up, but clarifications as to where we are and why are in short supply. What should be gripping is made merely frustrating. Meanwhile, new characters appear out of thin air with the audacity of established ones, leaving you to wonder whether you've missed something important or lost an important thread.
Maybe this could all have been forgiven somewhat had there been any palpable chemistry between the two leads. The movie, ultimately, is more interested in romance than plot, yet it takes up so much time spinning its narrative in twenty directions at once that the central pairing leaves very little impression. Across what amounts to a languidly paced affair, the film's blunt title quickly begins to sound like a very tempting proposition.
Decision to Leave was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 21 October.Where to watch