Back around 2006, if you asked a cinephile what Park Chan-wook’s deal was as a filmmaker, the answer would have been nice and simple: “He’s the Korean revenge-movie guy.” Park’s “vengeance trilogy” — the unrelated but simpatico dark thrillers Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance — crossed international borders during an era where it was rarer to see America fielding breakout hits from other countries than it is today. Twisty plotting, intense violence, and stunning action sequences like Oldboy’s famous “hammer and a hallway” fight helped put Park’s name on the map, but these three films (not his first, but at the time his most famous) also pigeonholed him as a director with very specific interests and tastes.
Park has become harder to pin down since then. His 2009 horror movie Thirst is a bleak vampire love story with more than a touch of sly comedy. Park’s English-language debut Stoker is an oddball misfire that pits Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, and Nicole Kidman against each other in a kind of lush drawing-room psychodrama balanced between horror story and period piece. Park got into spy action with The Little Drummer Girl, rom-coms with I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, and literary historical crime drama with The Handmaiden. And his latest, the immaculately crafted Decision to Leave, is both a police procedural and a love story, the kind of film that drifts lightly from one genre to another, and doesn’t fully land until the final devastating moments.
Decision to Leave does clarify a specific agenda for Park’s highly divergent filmography: He’s a man obsessed with obsession. Over and over, his protagonists get a compulsive idea into their heads, then doggedly chase it, no matter what it costs them. And it often costs them everything. In Oldboy, it’s a man obsessed with finding out who locked him up in a makeshift cell for 15 years, then dumped him on the street without explanation. In Thirst, it’s a vampire bent on self-destruction. In his love stories, people become obsessed with each other, in ways that pull them off their previous tracks and onto new ones. And in Decision to Leave, it’s a man obsessed with solving a murder, even if it destroys him and the woman he loves.
From the start, the film presents police detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il, from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder) as a man who doesn’t fully know how to exist outside of his job. He lives in the city on weekdays and visits his wife on weekends for decorous sex and subdued, friendly time together, but he always seems like his mind is elsewhere, especially at night, when insomnia takes hold of him. It takes a while for Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong to reveal exactly where his mind goes in the darkness.
When Hae-jun is called out on what seems like an accidental-death case, he meets the dead man’s soft-spoken widow, Seo-rae (Lust, Caution’s Tang Wei). Carefully, he probes at the idea that she might have staged a particularly clever, well-plotted murder. At the same time, he becomes gently obsessed with her. The two pursue a cautious, non-physical relationship — Park has said one of his major inspirations on the film was David Lean’s 1945 melodrama Brief Encounter, about two married people carrying on an emotional affair that never has the chance to go beyond kisses. In the process, though, Seo-rae begins to get under Hae-jun’s carefully crafted shell, exposing the obsessions he doesn’t reveal to anyone else.
Decision to Leave takes some huge narrative turns, but they never feel like the kind of Surprise! Plot! Twists! that leave audiences gasping and trying to catch up. It’s a slow-burn movie, paced more like a Wong Kar-wai romance (In the Mood for Love comes to mind often throughout this movie) than like Park’s early potboiler thrillers. At 138 minutes long, it’s paced for patient viewers who want to linger in the quiet spaces that grow between detective and suspect, and ponder each new bit of evidence in the murder case as it surfaces. It’s a particularly rich version of a whodunit, but it still follows the form, with one clue building on another as Hae-jun’s suspicions coalesce.
Decision to Leave eventually goes to the kind of shocking extremes Park is known for, but first, it courts an audience who can enjoy careful craft and elegant world-building. Early on, Hae-jun learns that Seo-rae is from China; when she meets new people, she apologizes for her “inadequate” Korean, though the subtitles never suggest she speaks clumsily. But when she’s positive she wants to be understood, she speaks into a translator app on her phone, and stares Hae-jun down as the device explains things to him in frank but poetic language. Seo-rae spends her downtime caring for elderly women in their homes, which Hae-jun winds up doing as well as he follows her tracks. That leads him to the classic Korean song “Mist,” which defines his relationship with Seo-rae. The movie returns over and over to the idea that Hae-jun has his clothes carefully tailored to add extra pockets, which are full of everything a person might need — something both his wife and Seo-rae casually take advantage of.
All these little grace notes feel like distractions for the film, until they resurface enough times to come clear as defining character traits, ways of understanding who these two people are. Both of them are hiding a great deal from the world and from each other, including their feelings for each other. But Park and Jeong have their leads reveal themselves through side details, and make both characters sharp and incisive enough to translate what those details mean. At first, Decision to Leave may not seem like the kind of swoony fantasy romance that builds fandoms. But as these small character angles gradually build toward a larger portrait, it becomes clear that it’s a different kind of fantasy altogether, about people who care enough — and can see clearly enough — to fully understand each other, even if they rarely verbalize that understanding.
That isn’t all that’s on Park’s mind with Decision to Leave, which ultimately lays out a second murder mystery that complicates the leads’ romance all over again, before crashing to a stunning ending. But while the procedural story takes up a fair bit of screen time, the emotional story is the center of the film, and the one that’s likely to stick with audiences longest and most clearly. As a story, it lacks the verve and dynamism of his early action films. As a portrait of obsession and regret, it’s remarkably sophisticated and satisfying. Park still cares about obsession, driving anger, and suppressed sadness — all the things that preoccupied him as a younger filmmaker. He just expresses those interests differently now, with soft conversations in memorable places, instead of with the blunt end of a hammer.
Decision to Leave, South Korea’s 2022 submission for the Academy Awards’ Best International Feature Film category, opens in America in limited theatrical release on Oct. 14, with a wider rollout beginning Oct. 21.