‘Decision to Leave’ is one of the finest films ever made

“Killing is like smoking – only the first time is hard.” Images courtesy CJ Entertainment.

9/10 Decision to Leave is an absolutely gorgeous and completely engrossing shape-shifting and yet brick-solid beast of a film. It’s transcendent, a sensation, a revolution, an utter masterpiece – screenwriter/director Park Chan-wook is such a master of his craft that he can make abbreviations no one else can make, like a writer expressing entire paragraphs with a single word. It’s breathtaking to watch and even more breathtaking to watch again and again.

Busan, South Korea- Det. Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), one of the Busan police department’s lead inspectors, can’t sleep and only sees his wife on weekends. When a retired immigration official falls to his death from a mountain he regularly climbs, Jang suspects his wife, the much younger Chinese immigrant Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), but is also immediately infatuated with her. His nights, already consumed by long stakeouts, become completely earmarked for her, and they grow closer over interrogations.

Decision to Leave is so good that it’s difficult to watch. It’s extremely detailed and extremely brisk, with editor Kim Sang-bum throwing a lot of information at you quickly and from a lot of different angles. There are a lot of abrupt transitions between short, but full and important scenes. Every cut has some measure of awkwardness, like there’s something the film itself isn’t telling you.

Additionally, many of these scenes are made of complex expressionistic elements, most often using characters who aren’t really there to build the scene – there’s several scenes of Jang’s speculative visualization of crimes he’s investigating that are expressed as Jang watching the crime being performed, including moments where he seems to interact with suspects. Characters will suddenly appear when Jang is alone to express his internal dialogue. There are also a lot of shots that pan across several different locations stitched together in the edit.

It’s a lot to take in. I find myself frequently going back to reexamine a scene to find that it was completely clear, just thrust at me like a fastball, too direct to get a handle on. Have some coffee and sit up straight for this – but also, it’s a midnight movie about crime and insomnia and you should totally watch it at midnight.

The use of mirrors in the interrogation scenes is sensational.

Billed as a Hitchcockian mystery-romance, Decision to Leave hops genres in seemingly every scene, which builds into its bewildering attack of movie. It’s at different moments a police procedural, a more detail-oriented detective story with awesome action, comedy and even significant horror elements, with Song suggesting that Jang’s insomnia comes from being haunted by unsolved cases and way more shots than normal of flies and other insects converging on fresh human corpses. If that’s not enough for you, Jang works on other cases within the runtime. It almost starts to feel like a comic-book crossover movie, incorporating the climaxes of several other stories that were mostly finished when the runtime started or happened offscreen in the service of the overarching forbidden love/insomnia story.

Kim Ji-yong’s cinematography is mesmeric and audacious in the extreme. Some of the camera moves in Decision to Leave are like the face of God. It’s easiest to appreciate on the mountaintop, which is revisited often, and in the astonishing physicality the film develops as Jang chases down other suspects. The camera is often at once inside the chase scene and set up to follow it into the distance, or holding in shots that pan a full 180 degrees as they lazily keep up with the action, capturing the scope of the chase against the cityscape.

On the other side of the spectrum, Decision to Leave is a revolution in shooting digital technology, with several conversations playing out over smartphone and devices being critical to Jang’s investigation. There are so many individual elements of this movie that deserve to be pulled out and studied, and the way it shoots texting conversations is probably the youngest as a general film consideration – there’s still not a great shorthand for it, but Park captures the drama and the physical relationships here.

The camera movement, onscreen digital technology and extensive use of invisible VFX behind the scenes, which are used to create its many astonishing mirror shots, combine explosively. The most mind-bending moment for me is late in the film when a shot of Song, recorded on a pixilated screen during a lie-detector test, pushes in seemingly through the pixels to a direct close-up of Song, then pulls out back to the pixilated screen.

As hard to watch as Decision to Leave can be due to its fast pace and thick expressionistic elements, its real peak moments, when the camera seems to soar through the scene, make watching the film seem as easy as falling asleep.

Of course, Decision to Leave is also an extremely horny film, right up there with The Batman as one of the most repressed of the year. It’s an emotional horniness, the horniness of someone who’s had plenty of mediocre sex and longs for someone they can coexist with. Jang and Song don’t make love, they cook together and clean each other’s apartments. They don’t kiss, but much more intimately, Jang lets Song poke around in his magnificent custom coat with a dozen pockets.

Decision to Leave is often very funny. Jokes come in suddenly and unexpectedly. The film uses its pace and scope to sneak moments of tension reversal in there, most often from other police officers who aren’t in love with Song interacting with the case, without ever committing entire scenes to pulling the rug out in this way.

Jang’s infidelities are sandwiched together. His devotion to his job and his devotion to Song become the same thing, for which he offers his wife the same excuses. At one point, Jang Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) sniffs her husband’s shirt, smells Song’s cigarette and accuses him not of cheating, but of sneaking a smoke.

Decision to Leave is all about these sorts of details, with food, hands, eyes and cigarettes all playing huge roles in both Jang’s romance and his investigation, but frequently without the close-ups that would really scream to a viewer that they’re the main giveaways in the scene. That’s another way you need to be primed to watch this movie. The story is told much more through the actors expressing their characters’ physical sensations, smells, pulse-quickening, arousal, discomfort, but they’re also keeping poker faces because they’re all lying to each other.

The film is so expansive and so tight and so dramatic that I wonder if it wouldn’t work better as a show in which every scene in the final movie is the climax of an individual episode and fans would get a week to debate and pour over all the individual details and nuances of the performances. It’s that good and that in-depth, but also that show-stopping.

Many Oscar-oriented releases this year owe a great deal to 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite, but it’d be more accurate to say Decision to Leave, also from a master South Korean director 20 years into his career, keenly recalls it. They’re both cerebral, deep urban neon-noirs with incredible pacing and emphasis on physical details that don’t necessarily translate well to film – or, they don’t use cutaways to express them the way an American film would, it’s probably a difference of Korean film linguistics. Both films also make heavy use of the verticality of their chosen cities.

Decision to Leave is probably flat-out better for a native Korean speaker just because of the language barrier in the film – Song describes her Korean as “insufficient” and frequently drops into Mandarin translated through an app on her phone. On my third viewing, the sharper Chinese sounds start to become more distinct, but this is another way the film takes some getting used to.

Also like Parasite, Decision to Leave is likely going to take this year’s Best International Feature in a cakewalk and should get serious consideration for Best Picture. A Mubi channel original, this is the movie you’ve been saving that free trial for, but don’t miss the chance to see it in theaters when it rereleases after nominations. This one is a real treat.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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