In the first third of Decision to Leave, Detective Soo-wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) orders in some premium takeaway sushi. As odd as it sounds, that’s the film: it’s premium takeaway sushi. In the film, the food comes in a beautiful box and looks stunning; this film is so handsomely put together, so classy and so striking. It’s a delicious treat, with satisfyingly arty aesthetics. It’s fancy. But, after all this, it is still just takeaway food. Really good takeaway food but takeaway food nonetheless: expedient, satisfying fun but this convenience comes at a cost to substance. Decision to Leave is energetic stuff (sharp and fast-paced filmmaking) but this momentum, and the desire for narrative dexterity, does make it fall short of the wider impact it seeks. It is a stunning takeaway, the classiest of them, but it’s no sit-down-meal.
Decision to Leave is yet another strong film from writer-director Park Chan-wook (still most notable for the transgressive 2003 revenge thriller, Oldboy). Amongst his oeuvre, though, Decision to Leave is perhaps more defined by the co-writer, Seo-kyeong Jeong. The film’s feel, and focus on an ever-shifting narrative, feels like a direct continuation of the style set out by 2016’s The Handmaiden, while dynamics, themes and narrative beats are reminiscent of other former Seo-kyeong Jeong and Park Chan-wook collaborations: I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK (2006), Thirst (2009) and Lady Vengeance (2005). This is not extreme and nasty in the way Oldboy or Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) are, not as pulpy as Stoker (2013) and, though it has a romantic core (and a focus on mystery), there is a twisted and mischievous feel that is not present in Joint Security Area (2000). It is pleasing when a comparative overview of a filmography nicely reveals how distinct the new film is, while also points out the areas of authorial obsession the film pushes forward.
This latest feature is Park Chan-wook and co. going full Hitchcock, or Park Chan-Hitchcock, as it still retains so much of the actual director’s cinematic voice. It is a bifurcated detective story, built around an investigator’s growing relationship with an enigmatic femme fatale, Seo-rae (Tang Wei). A story of betrayal, murder, performed identities and romance. The most obvious comparison, which the film leans into, is Vertigo (1958). It is an enriching comparison, as Decision to Leave duets with the expectations and content of Hitchcock’s film, nodding towards it (both visually and narratively) while deftly pulling away from it. It is all part of a film that is best described as playful and mischievous. It is very much a narrative work, so to give away detail feels like a disservice, especially as the film is so eager to be withholding, is so keen to stay a step ahead of the audience. Throughout the film, this positioning is wonderful, it is a gleeful feeling to be in the capable hands of the movie as it shifts in front of you. It always seems to have a trick up its sleeve, holding reveals back or cleverly wrong-footing. It works because it doesn’t feel manipulative and is told boldly, and often visually. It is a frequent subversion of internal expectations; often delightful due to the way it seems to conform to predictions while slyly distorting them. It also works because the film is in concert with the main character, a detective who is in too deep, one defined by insomnia and obsession. The film’s overwhelming and labyrinthine narrative are purposefully smothering and wrongfooting, enhanced by elliptical moments where our lead shifts in and out of understanding.
It is a well choreographed dance, a bespoke picture where a sublime soundtrack and stunning visuals further enhance all. The score really is a standout feature, pushing into Bernard Herrmann territory as a motif, while also staying taught and contemporary. It has the chameleonic feel of the wider film, the necessary intensity but also a kind of classy beauty. After all, Decision to Leave is a very elegant affair. It has stylistic affectations that feel very contemporary but there is a timeless feel to the filmmaking also. Visual beauty formed by art gallery-esque framings are often the deal of the day. It is a superbly crafted film, the thing that keeps it going and that establishes it as excellent, aided of course by the performances being deeply compelling (more so than the characters actually are). And this brings us to the central issue: the film is incredibly fun, has a satisfying narrative and is, also, very very funny (darkly so, but genuinely so); however, it lacks heft, substance and (for me) emotion. The film is good at twisting and turning but its focus on this has a detrimental impact on wider aims.
As a viewer, you are positioned at an arm’s length. The film is so keen to stay ahead of you that it is far too easy to engage with the text on a more passive basis, to interpret it as mere narrative. You wait for reveals and are always cognisant of the clockwork machinery of plotting. It is so good at wrongfooting you and at giving little narrative ripples, ones that slightly change everything, that watching does become waiting. It is a fulfilling spectatorship but spectatorship nonetheless. This is encouraged by pacing, the film speeds through its content (excitingly so) but doesn’t allow itself to linger. Decision to Leave is a film that will leave you having conversations about its thematic heart and about its eventual enigmas, but it doesn’t include you within those conversations during its runtime. Where many films feel like dialogues with the audience, giving space for thought and interpretation, Decision to Leave (due to construction) just does not. This does limit it somewhat throughout but certainly impacts the final movements, which adopt a more enigmatic and ambiguous style. The unknowability of the rest of the film is one of plot and narrative, one of a mystery to be solved; towards the end, it is more of an existential unknowability. This ties the film, once again, perfectly to its main character: he is the police officer obsessed with the unsolved case, destructively, and the film lines up nicely with this (and gets the audience to feel this way also, a smart exercise). Though, the film’s ability to keep producing surprises and further layers makes the ending sequences feel like maybe a final trick is missing. It is by design but does not feel quite in keeping with how the rest of the film plays out. The problem, really, is in setting up a narrative that happens to the audience and then switching to one that fully invites them in. It is a jarring and all too sudden shift, leaving us with a film that ultimately ties itself in too many narrative knots throughout (even if it can unpick them all).
It is such an enjoyable work, though. Getting caught up in the shifting narrative is a delight, as you always feel a step behind. The focus on narrative intricacy does cut into the humanity of the characters, as they read, ultimately, as archetypal, as secondary to plot. This means any attempted gut-punches, emotion wise, certainly do not hit. However, the plotting our players support is rather stunning, and the archetypes are always very fun. This is a delight of a film. It is so exciting, energetic and dexterous. It is top-drawer takeaway sushi. Full of evident craftsmanship, dripping in elegance and style. It is a treat, for sure. It is decadent. But it is never quite the full meal, never quite the broader experience.