Film Review: Decision to Leave

It seems the world is currently crazy about anything South Korean. BTS are taking the global pop charts by storm, Korean fried chicken is rising in popularity in food outlets, and Korean films and actors are scooping some big awards.

The latter has seen films such as 2020’s drama Minari and 2019’s horror flick Parasite be two of the most prominent from South Korean talent. Now Decision to Leave, a romantic thriller-drama could well be joining their ranks in the future. As a prominent figure in advocating for ESEA communities in Manchester (per the email I received from MilkTea Films and MUBI), I was invited to a special screening of this new film at indie arts centre and cinema HOME. Going in with few expectations and little knowledge of the film, I left understanding the way in which Korean filmmaking really likes to switch things up and challenge any expectations you pick up along the way, just when you least think it will happen.

Decision to Leave is a murder mystery centred around Busan police detective Hae-jun as he deals with many of the city’s murders and other horrific crimes and criminals. When he is called to the scene of a keen mountaineer found dead at the bottom of a cliff, suspicions about the man’s wife being his killer are jarred by his attraction to her and her seemingly innocent charm. But are some of tell-tale signs just coincidences and is it because she’s the deceased’s only and nearest next of kin that she’s the prime suspect, or is her sweet and demure nature nothing more than an act?

Tang Wei and Park Hae-il as Seo-rae and Hae-jun, two yearning lovers brought together by a murder mystery he is trying to solve and where she is a prime suspect…

The suspense and the twists truly make Decision to Leave a murder mystery that even this experienced policeman (played by Park Hae-il, whose emotive black eyes really do as much acting as his body) struggles to solve. And Chinese actress Tang Wei expertly plays the Chinese-born Seo-rae, the widow/murder suspect with a personality so complex you are constantly flipping between being suspicious of her too, feeling pity for her or actually rooting for her. Tang Wei is an extremely versatile and consummate actress, and her commitment to her craft is shown as she learnt Korean for the role (she had previously won over Korean audiences with a role in the South Korean, Chinese and American co-produced film Late Autumn and has a Korean husband). This is in addition to her having previously learnt Shanghainese, Suzhounese and Cantonese dialects for the films Lust, Caution and Crossing Hennessy, and of course English for others.

Throughout Decision to Leave, you follow Hae-jun as he battles to remain a dignified police officer trying to solve crimes with a dutiful wife waiting for him in Ipo, a quiet, foggy, more traditional and what appears to be a fishing and seafood town that is a stark difference to the hustle and bustle of Busan. But while his wife wants him to join her there, he is too stuck into his work – specifically trying to catch an elusive criminal leader. That is until Seo-rae enters the foray and a strange and often silent mutual attraction between them begins. What ensues is not only a desire to find out what really happened to the dead mountain climber but a secret love and complicated triangle. That and much more…

Park Chan-wook wins Best Director for Decision to Leave at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

I have never really watched a Korean-language film before so while Decision to Leave was my first it might not be my last. A highlight beyond the two main characters’ chemistry and dynamics as well as conflicted storyline of love and frustration were some of the clever scenes in which Hae-jun imagines himself in places such as sat right next to Seo-rae while she carries on living her life and where he retraces the footsteps of the victims and the criminals in order to solve the mysteries.

But perhaps one of the slight drawbacks is that the film was rather long. A couple of points in time you are convinced it’s the end, until the plot thickens and is drawn out further. This however, didn’t make it any less suspenseful, though you may be a little confused with what’s going on by one of the jumps ahead in time and the ending, while dramatic and emotional, is also a last twist that seemed a little strange and almost leaves you feeling that it is not how you had expected nor hoped it would end.

Decision to Leave has already won the Best Director award for Park Chan-wook at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, has picked up several gongs at South Korean film award ceremonies and will hopefully be nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards. So if there’s one very different and unique or at least one non-English film to watch this autumn, Decision to Leave is a decision you won’t regret leaving the house for.

Rating: 4/5

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