DECISION TO LEAVE – Review by Valerie Kalfrin

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Killing is like smoking, observes a character in the haunting Korean drama Decision to Leave—only the first time is hard.

Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), who earned a best director award for this film at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, packs several twists and engrossing camera work into this murder mystery, but also an elegiac romance. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and how the femme fatale eventually became obsessed with the detective obsessed with her.

Here, Busan cop Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, The King’s Letters) becomes smitten with the much-younger wife of an immigration officer who falls to his death while scaling a local mountain, a hobby he’d record for social media. The wife, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei, The Whistleblower), is a home healthcare worker who also is Chinese; she uses a phone app to translate the detective’s questions and some of her responses, a layer that for the detective only adds to her lovely allure.

Hae-joon seems to be all business, but we know something’s percolating once he orders her an expensive bento box for a meal break during questioning instead of his colleagues’ budget eats. He also flubs details about the case when talking to his wife, Jeong-Ahn (Lee Jung-hyun, Peninsula), claiming the attractive young wife died.

The detective and his wife live apart during the week because of his job, and she’s a bit of a pill, often suggesting frequent remedies for depression, menopause, and insomnia. By comparison, Seo-rae seems genuinely kind when she suggests he take down the photos of the dead in his tiny apartment to give himself peace at night. She also seems only mildly flirtatious, such as when she borrows his hand lotion. “I liked from the start that my detective was so dignified,” she says.

The leads’ chemistry keeps us wavering along with Hae-joon from suspicion of Seo-rae to actually rooting for them to have a chance together. Hae-il makes his struggle between honor and desire sympathetic and relatable, and Wei crafts an ambivalence that lasts right up to the finale.

Along with the performances, Chan-wook, cinematographer Kim Ji-yong (The Fortress), editor Kim Sang-beom (Hunt), and the visual effects team make Decision to Leave an intriguing watch, placing the audience inside different viewpoints, real and imagined, including the corpse at one point, with flies over his eyes. They also dramatize Hae-joon’s thoughts, such as when he watches Seo-rae at work through his binoculars from a distance, then zooms into a medium shot where he’s suddenly in the same room with her, observing as she feeds a client’s pets and other tasks. It’s as if he’s not only studying her but projecting a wish to be closer to her.

While the case is a slow burn (I confess I became confused over a few details), Chan-wook and co-screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong deliver a clever payoff—and a disturbing denouement. Gradually shattering, it engulfs little by little, growing sadder and more unsettling with each wave.

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Valerie Kalfrin

Valerie Kalfrin is an award-winning crime journalist turned freelance film writer whose work appears at RogerEbert.com, In Their Own League, Script, The Hollywood Reporter, and other outlets. Also a screenwriter and script consultant, she’s passionate about challenging stereotypes about gender and disability. Let’s tell better stories and tell stories better.