Park Chan-wook can say so much about his characters and story by simply setting a table. Decision to Leave, Chan-wook’s first film since 2016’s The Handmaiden, is both a romance and a police procedural, as detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) investigates the murder of a man who died on a mountaintop. Hae-joon suspects the man’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei) might have something to do with her husband’s death, and so he brings her in for questioning.
Hae-joon is married to Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun), yet the pair are frequently separated because of their jobs, and their intimacy isn’t what it should be, even to the point that they plan out sex ahead of time. Hae-joon and Jung-an care for each other, but this relationship clearly isn’t what it should be. Contrast that stiffness with the moment Hae-joon brings Seo-rae in for questioning. While the dynamic between these two is awkward at first, they soon find a rapport that works for them, making these two start to fall for each other. But when Jung-an orders lunch for the two of them during his interrogation—a beautiful set of sushi for two—they clean up the table with such care and ease, as if they’re the married couple who has done this a million times before. Through this scene, Chan-wook is setting the table—both literally and figuratively—for a remarkable love story and an equally solid mystery.
Yet Chan-wook, who co-wrote the script with Jeong Seo-kyeong, doesn’t make Decision to Leave a whodunit, but rather an exploration of this relationship between Hae-joon ad Seo-rae. There is a murder at the center of their story, and part of how Decision to Leave’s unraveling focuses on what happened to Seo-rae’s husband, yet this love story is always the focal point in Chan-wook’s narrative—the linchpin that ties both procedural and romance together. Chan-wook expectedly balances both sides of this story beautifully, allowing both sides of this story to go in unexpected directions.
Chan-wook and Seo-kyeong’s story is all about varying perspectives, how the world can be altered greatly depending on your viewpoint. While Seo-rae’s husband sees the mountain he died on as a catharsis from his day-to-day, Seo-rae potentially saw this as a clean way to escape her abusive relationship. But on an even larger scale, Decision to Leave acts us to question what we’re seeing and how we perceive this story. Is Seo-rae just a great actor trying to draw Hae-joon in closer so she can get away with her crimes, or is she also falling for Hae-joon as well? Seo-rae is Chinese living in Korea, frequently having to translate her intentions into another language, and in a similar way, Chan-wook and Seo-kyeong is asking their audience to translate their choices and figure out what they mean over the course of this story.
Decision to Leave constantly adds layers to this already twisty and convoluted story, yet it never becomes overwhelmed by the weight of these additions. A shift in the second half of the film recontextualizes aspects of the first half, making us reconsider story beats that we were already still turning around in our heads. But in this shift, Chan-wook’s story becomes even more heightened and exciting, as another murder finds parallels with the first one, and the love story between Hae-joon and Seo-rae grows even stronger. Over the course of Decision to Leave Chan-wook continuously elevates what we’re watching, and the film never becomes too much to handle.
But this is also thanks to the incredible performances by Park Hae-il and Tang Wei, both of whom have had to deal with a lack of the love that they crave for too long, and maybe have found what they’re looking for in each other. Hae-joon finds himself indulging in stakeouts, almost falling asleep on the road instead of in his bed at home, whereas Seo-rae seems almost excited to be a part of Hae-joon’s mystery. Both of these characters are fairly reserved, but Park Hae-il and Tang Wei’s performances show the desire and passion that is buried just underneath the surface, almost ready to burst out of their skins. Decision to Leave almost works as a counterpoint to Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, as this is a love story entirely told through quiet glances, and assumptions made by the other, but without the sexual aspect that gave Chan-wook’s previous film a sort of catharsis to this story.