‘Decision to Leave’ Finds Star-Crossed Lovers in a Cop and His Suspect

From Cupid and his arrows and Sir Thomas Wyatt describing his beloved as a deer, to the romanticized relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, romance has always involved a pursuit. Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave (2022), cowritten with Chung Seo-kyung, takes that literally. It’s the most swooningly romantic noir you’ll see this decade.

Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, who played the most promising suspect in Bong Joon Ho’s 2003 Memories of Murder), an insomniac police detective living apart from his loving wife (Lee Jung-hyun) during the workweek, picks up the case of a mountain climber who has plummeted to his death. The investigation is a mere formality, until he meets the widow, Seo-rae. She’s beautiful, young, Chinese, and professes not to be surprised at her husband’s death. Played by the great Tang Wei, she’s more depth than surface. And the depths are alluring.

She’s a femme fatale, no doubt about it, and she does manage to turn things her way through underhanded means. But the film asks: What if the femme fatale loved the protagonist back? What if, instead of hunter and prey, they were star-crossed lovers? The fun lies in how the film never definitively answers this question, and it can avoid doing so entirely due to Tang’s performance. Even the melodramatic ending — powerful or maudlin depending on taste — can be construed as yet another elimination of evidence and setting up of a scapegoat.

It starts simply enough. His eyes bulge when he first sees her. They face each other across an interrogation table, and the rhythm of their conversation builds rapport. She, like so many women, can tell when a man is into her, though it gets pretty obvious when he orders expensive sushi takeout for their dinner. They finish at the exact same time, and the way they clear the table together — the interrogation table, mind you — evokes synchronized swimming, or a figure skating duo. And we’re off to the races!

The effect of the dinner scene is highlighted with overhead and insert shots of the table and dinnerware (cinematography by Kim Ji-yong). And throughout the interrogation, Seo-rae and Hae-joon are ingeniously stuffed into the frame together via various reflections and refractions — always sharing the screen, apart.

Hae-joon is obviously smitten, and his insomnia adds to his puppy dog demeanor. But when he’s abruptly called away to chase the lead suspect in another case, Seo-rae surreptitiously follows, and she happens to lock eyes with Hae-joon at the climax of the chase-fight-arrest. Seems like she’s into him, too. No coldhearted black widow would let herself be caught like that. Right?

She catches him again when he surveils her apartment, but instead of repulsion, she seems … happy. It’s revealed that Seo-rae came to Korea illegally, and that her former husband may have been abusive. Could this “kindhearted cop” (in her words) and his fixed surveillance schedule represent a source of safety?

Style is the name of the exposition game, as the film blazes through information with fast editing, trick shots, and temporal shenanigans that sometimes leave you grasping in the whirlwind, unsure if what you’re seeing is real, metaphorical, or straight-up fantasy (edited by Kim Sang-beom). It also has some of the best zoom work this side of Hong Sang-soo.

After the case is closed and Seo-rae cleared, Hae-joon begins an affair with her — or does she begin it with him? All we know is that, suddenly, she’s in his weekday apartment, and he’s cooking Chinese food for her. Similar to The Age of Innocence (1993), the fact that the two leads are never less than fully dressed only adds to the sexual tension. The most we get is a single kiss, and it’s so out of character for the film that we can’t help wondering if Seo-rae is just trying to distract Hae-joon from something else.

Like in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Hae-joon learns the truth only after the case is closed, and the denouement is done with flair, the music (by Cho Young-wuk) making your heart pound as the bloodhounds close in on their quarry. But wait, what’s this? There’s still an hour left in this 138-minute film? And now there’s a 13-month time jump?!

Fans of Director Park’s work will be surprised not at all that the whole shebang so far has merely been the first act. I’ll leave the second and third acts for you to experience yourself, but when film critic and enfant terrible Armond White calls the film a parody of the Infernal Affairs trilogy (無間道 2002–2003), which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed (2006) — well, he’s not wrong. (It’s also a cool queer reading of Infernal/Departed). There’s take, but at key moments there’s also give.

It feels like Hae-joon and Seo-rae were married in a past life, perhaps because Tang and Park spent some time together before filming without trying to punch through the language barrier. Despite how messed up their relationship is, I couldn’t help rooting for them. What’s a little murder in the face of true love?

Decision to Leave is in theaters.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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