*Mild spoilers for Decision To Leave*
Filipino director Isabel Sandoval once wrote an essay on the concept of ‘Sensual Cinema’. She likens the sub-genre to being taken to the edge of pleasure – more concerned with the whispers of desire than the act of fulfilling it (though films that do both can still qualify). It’s all about the tease. “Sex sells?”, she writes, “that’s old-hat. I say it’s desire, and the more repressed, taboo, unfulfilled that desire is, the more consuming it is, and the more it plays like gangbusters.” She touts Vertigo, Lost In Translation, and her own film Lingua Franca as examples of Sensual Cinema, among many others (find a list made by Sandoval here) though the shining example of its kind must be Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love, a movie that is all repressed desire and zero catharsis. The history of cinema is bursting with both iconic and infamous lovemaking, but the moments that really keep our chests tight are located before lips meet; that savour the raw, untethered emotions bouncing off the walls like atoms – in wandering eyes, deep breaths, sultry body language and sharp-tongues. There’s romance, and there’s longing, and there’s tension, and there’s intimacy. Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave manages to lay claim on all the above, and then some, with scarcely a kiss in sight.
The success of Decision To Leave largely boils down to the necessity that the audience believe in the desire between Tang Wei’s murder suspect Seo-rae and Park Hae-il’s hard-boiled detective Hae Jun, even as, by nature of the twists and turns of the film itself, the romance between them is called into question. Park is no stranger to sexual tabboo – frankly, he thrives in it. Look no further than previous feature The Handmaiden, though you’ll find traces of it all over his work; Thirst, Stoker, and Oldboy (oh, boy). The core relationship in Decision To Leave is no exception, as married officer Hae-il begins to obsess over the prime suspect of a murder case who happens to be the victim’s wife. A workaholic insomniac, he spends his nights surveilling her in her apartment under the guise of work, studying the patterns of her everyday, unaware that the grieving widow is keeping as close a watch on him as he is on her…
It doesn’t hurt that the relationship that elevates Decision To Leave from mundane and melodramatic police procedural to hot-blooded romantic-thriller is led by two masterclass performances in Hae-il and Wei. Hae-il is on top form as a man whose yearning for the forbidden threatens to tear his personal and professional life apart, but it’s Tang Wei that delivers (in both Chinese and Korean dialect) a true heartstopper and career-best, tapping into the guarded vulnerabilities of an astute femme-fatale, in the process becoming one of the most compelling characters Park has ever written. The movie comes alive when the two share a scene, supported by Kim Suk-won’s expertly rendered sound design that magnifies the nuances of their chemistry with every trembling exhale. The investigation unfolds and the two trade musings on love, murder, and morality, becoming increasingly entangled in each other’s orbit. “Am I so wicked?” Seo-rae asks Hae Jun, talking on a cliff-edge towering over thundering waves (a fitting metaphor for their relationship). It becomes a twisted, destructive game-of-sorts trying to answer; for the detective, the suspect, and the audience. As they playfully and dangerously dance around each other, Park and his two leads create a chemistry that is utterly convincing, all the while fanning suspicions that one may guard ulterior motives.
A quintessential element of Park’s visual work is his ability to surprise over and over again while keeping his distinct style intact. I was already a major fan of his films when I saw Stoker, yet a shot of Nicole Kidman’s hair transitioning into a field of tall grass bowled me over as if I had never seen a frame of his filmography. Even those who flinch at the prospect of world cinema will know of the one-shot hallway scene in Oldboy (or, at the very least, have unknowingly been victim to its influence. Netflix’s Daredevil, anyone?). Two objective hall-of-famers, a handful of beloved features deep, and the Korean master still knows how to take the camera places you’d never expect, like underneath the eye of a dead man as ants crawl over his retina. With the help of DOP Kim Ji-young and Editor Kim Sang-bum, Park’s lens becomes a character in and of itself, witty and devilish as it moves through the story.
It’s the undeniable splendor of Park’s direction and the heat between his two leads that keep Decision To Leave’s winding narrative from growing stale, even as the 140 minute procedural threatens to overstay its welcome. A little too elaborate for its own good, some may arrive at the end of the film wondering why it reaches the conclusion it does. Is a love that exists on two sides of a coin destined to elude itself forever? The hope is that questions like those will solve themselves upon repeat viewings – though it’s clear after just one that Decision To Leave reaches the same standard of visual spectacularity and tantalizing sensuality that we’ve been holding Park Chan-wook to for years. A slick romantic-thriller that could have only been made by a filmmaker as inventive as Park.