Park Chan-wook’s love stories have always challenged dynamics, taste, and romantic convention. But at the heart of all of them remains a certain sanctity that amongst the blood, guts and in some cases, genuine perversion is maintained with a transient intimacy. Whether that be amidst the exhilarating (and frequently shocking) erotica of The Handmaiden, the lusty vampirism of Thirst or, most jaw-droppingly, the circumstances surrounding the final shot of Oldboy, which somehow harbours a genuinely tender sense of comfort despite the ultraviolence that precedes it and the boldly depraved implications laid upon it by the film’s iconic twist. All of that is to say that Park has managed over the course of his career to shock, provoke, and confront his audiences with exceptionally tough material. But what makes him the world class filmmaker he is, is that he grounds these frequently tragic stories of anguish and ferocity in deeply felt human emotion and almost pulpy heart. Viewing passion and sensation through an engrossing genre lens, he leads his audiences into what are truly stories of relationships and a carnal need to feel connected to and depend on one another.
With Decision to Leave, Park explicitly works in the wheelhouse of romance, a detective story with such handsome grace that despite its plot of lust, violence and intrigue is very crucially not an erotic thriller. Comparisons have already been made to Basic Instinct, given the familiar character dynamic of a bruised, exhausted cop becoming infatuated with a suspect whose erotic and moral ambiguity leads to him being led astray from his duty and formality. But what Park does with the noir genre in Decision to Leave is nearly the opposite of what Verhoeven was doing in Basic Instinct. Verhoeven saw in the classic noir films of the early 20th Century an unconsummated eroticism that, given the loosening of censorship laws over the course of the century, could now be cranked up to graphic, promiscuous excess, with Sharon Stone’s femme fatale becoming perhaps the most iconic sex symbol in modern adult cinema.
What Park has seen in noir however, is much more the formal, sensual romance that lies between the world-weary detective becoming revitalised (or corrupted) by the electrifying dame he has been confronted by, a sex of feeling and of emotional intimacy rather than that of physicality. Ultimately, Park’s age-of-tech neo-noir is all the more beguiling for it, as in the age of post-modernity and of sensationalist imagery, Park remains infatuated with the authenticity of genre and an intelligent cinema whose greatest concern is its craft and its feeling. Not the cathartic images, but the emotions and the passion that lie beneath them. The sanctity of feeling, not the spectacle of it. Despite his career featuring many graphic, histrionic images, it’s not the ultraviolence of Oldboy that makes it so spectacular, it’s the tragedy that exists underneath it.
Beyond its approach to genre, Decision to Leave is an endlessly engrossing 139 minutes, weaving its way through its mystery and its romance with a grace and a clockwork pacing that makes its reveals and its intricacy all the more delightful to an attentive viewer, emboldened by a sophisticated script that has as firm a grasp on its characters as it does its undoubtedly engaged audience. The film shines brightest when its two outstanding leads are sharing the screen, with numerous scenes of dialogue where their chemistry just melts the environment that surrounds them, with the centre of the film’s world lying exactly in the middle of their hypnotising eye contact.
Decorated Chinese actress Tang Wei, of Lust, Caution and the severely underrated Blackhat, gives an absolutely spell-binding performance as Seo-rae, playing the excellent dual role of ambiguously scheming cat and vulnerable mouse as the film’s dynamics switch back and forth over its course, with her numerous gazes into camera feeling like moments of real visceral charge as we understand so little of what lies behind her wide eyes as they envelop the screen. Park Hae-il is also brilliant as the decaying detective drifting in and out of his own conscience and judgement, being made whole again by his new muse, but also losing all sense of security and identity in the process. A truly ‘down bad’ male protagonist wandering through the lonely maze of middle age without urgency or direction, becoming illuminated by the prospect of passion that he didn’t believe existed anymore prior to his entangling with Seo-rae.
Decision to Leave tells a classic tale, one whose hallmarks have lasted as long as cinema has. What Park has done however is identify the atmosphere that makes these stories of murder, deception, and lust just as timeless as they are. He suspends his story in the seductive, liminal space of violent and erotic tension that very best noirs dance in, making a film with so much class and poise that it arouses and titillates while still being a film which the Hays Code wouldn’t have so much trouble with. In an age where people complain about a lack of eroticism in the modern cinema, Park brings back the sensual cinema with expert sensitivity and wicked intelligence, all while telling a fascinatingly constructed and masterfully executed mystery rich with detail and tragedy.
Decision to Leave will be released in cinemas on October 21st.
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor