[HanCinema's Film Review] "Decision to Leave"
By William Schwartz | Published on
Recently, "Decision to Leave" was confirmed to be South Korea's submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film this year. The noir film is in a strong position to at least get a nomination. Director Park Chan-wook is a long-time favorite of the international film circuit, and was already honored as such earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival with his winning Best Director. But how watchable is this movie really?
I found over the one hundred and thirty eighty minute runtime that the answer was...not so much. The premise, which sounds more straightforward in print than in execution, is that Detective Jang (played by Park Hae-il) is investigating Chinese immigrant Seo-rae (played by Tang Wei) in the death of her husband. Seo-rae claims ancestry from a Korean independence fighter, though her own spoken Korean is relatively flawed and she often resorts to communication through machine translation.
These details aren't as important as they sound. "Decision to Leave" often brings up a scene that seems to convey important information, almost all of which turns out to be trivial, and which is only ever obliquely referenced in the future. There's an early petty plot point about Detective Jang treating Seo-rae to sushi during a police interview. Post timeskip, when he interviews her again, Detective Jang instead gives Seo-rae a corn dog.
The significance of this is that sushi is expensive, while corn dogs can be acquired cheaply on any street corner, symbolically emphasizing how Detective Jang is more skeptical of Seo-rae in her second appearance. "Decision to Leave" focuses obsessively on this kind of subtext, while just barely glancing over the text. The various murders that occur over the story are flippant in execution, with the stated motives seeming quite extreme and poorly thought through.
Anyone expecting the intense violence that's often associated with Park Chan-wook will likewise be disappointed here. Such scenes are brief and truncated, with no apparent emphasis relative to the plot. In one late moment, Detective Jang attempts to apprehend a turtle thief, and ends up being bitten by a turtle. The purpose of this scene continue to elude me, as the turtle thievery is not discussed ahead of time or referenced again afterwards.
I imagine there's some sort of deep, symbolic meaning behind all of these creative choices. I just couldn't be bothered to try and suss it out because I cared so little about the characters. Detective Jang has a wife, for example, who has a fair amount of screentime but who as far as I can tell exists mainly to emphasize that Detective Jang's obsession with Seo-rae isn't due to loneliness.
Seo-ran's obsession with Detective Jang is even less clear, apparently centered around her sympathy with his insomnia. It doesn't help that a lot of their scenes together exist only in Detective Jang's imagination. "Decision to Leave" doesn't work well as either a romance, a melodrama, or even a detective story. It's a movie that could only really possibly appeal to people who really, really love film noir.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea from 2011 to 2021. He is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Hangzhou, where he studies Chinese film. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org, and is open to requests for content in future articles.