Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 28, 2022 8:43 pm 
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A police procedural that becomes an erotic cat and mouse game

A Cannes review by Ben Kenigsberg provides the essentials of Decision to Leave: "Park, making his first feature since his miniseries adaptation of John LeCarré's "The Little Drummer Girl," is still in a LeCarréan mode, firing plot details at viewers in a clipped editing style at a rapid pace. The film combines a complicated mystery, a love story, and occasional bits of broad comedy to come up with a thriller that feels at once overstuffed and single-minded, derivative and sui generis." This dodgy-ness and complexity can delight, as it does critics like Manohla Dargis and Jessica Kiang. But it can also annoy or confuse those who have trouble following and are jarred by an inconsistency of tone that's almost inevitable in a film that's a mystery thriller, a love story, and a mind-teasing game of shifting jump cuts, flashbacks, and fantasy images.

What's thrilling, though, is the intensity of focus on the central theme of the married detective who falls in love with an attractive female murder suspect and the complexity of the man and woman's relationship, which is all the more erotic and haunting for never becoming sexual. Working in surfaces and depths simultaneously, Park seeks, and achieves, a layered effect. Just as there is an investigation and a love story, there are multiple things going on all the time on different levels.

But the screenplay really does continually and memorably revolve around Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), the chief detective, and Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei of Lust, Caution), the suspect: you walk out of the theater with this duo whirling around in your head, an effect insured by a strikingly tragic, romantic finale on a wild seacoast with fog and spume and roaring waves and rocks as a tide sweeps in and the two principals are present, but lost to each other. It might be incredibly corny if it weren't done so dazzlingly well so that it becomes heartbreaking and thrilling. It's one of many things here that reminds you Park, whatever his unevenness or absurdity sometimes, is one of the world's great filmmakers. It is also the case that the two leads play with remarkable conviction and chemistry, with Tang Wei particularly powerful as a memorably chameleonic femme fatale. Did she push her husband off the mountain or is she just very complicated? And she gets more so.

Obviously Park is further than ever from the arresting brutality of the Vengeance trilogy that made him internationally famous, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance (2002, 2003, and 2005). Partly he is in police procedural world, and partly (as more than one reviewer has pointed out) whether he's seen Hitchcock or not, he's in the world of Hitchcock's Vertigo, a man in search of a vanishing, entrancing woman he can never quite track down. There's a lot to process here, and if you want a movie to be understandable the first time through, as I tend to do, you won't be entirely satisfied. But you would also be foolish not to be impressed by such compelling complexity in playing around with a seemingly over-familiar genre.

There was linguistic play in Parks' last feature The Handmaiden (2016 - a long six years ago), where the Japanese occupiers of 1930's Korea speak Japanese and the occupied speak Korean. Here it is established at once that Seo-rae is Chinese and came to Korea as an illegal but was allowed to stay because of a Korean relative who was a a hero in the 1930's war against the Japanese. Her Korean is "insuficient." But it is also interesting, and no doubt for Koreans much subtlety arises from linguistic twists - and meanwhile one of the contemporary phone uses is her way of speaking Chinese into hers when expressing a particularly complex feeling or idea to Hae-joon and having it talk back to him in instant Korean -auto-translation. Smart watches and smart phones are also used as recording devices and oral journals that document and bring back the couple's complexly waxing and waning romance. Numerous reviewers have remarked on how Park makes the smart phone business that confounds many directors contemporary and intriguing.

Sometimes the jump-cuts and switches back and forth in time or from reality to wish made me feel dizzy and helpless. But I'd rather be on a train that's going too fast than one that's going too slow, maybe even be watching a film that's too long than one that's too short. Decision to Leave has a whole second act that starts things all over again, raising the layering effect to a higher level and providing more food for thought. There's no way around the fact that this is a movie for second or more viewings - and, whatever its failings or frustrations, one of the year's best.

Decision to Leave 헤어질 결심 139 mins., debuted at Cannes May 23, 2022, where it won the Best Director award. French theatrical release May 29, AlloCiné press rating 4.0 (80%). Over two dozen other festival showings including the New York Film Festival. US theatrical release Oct. 14, 2022. South Korea's best foreign Oscar entry for 2023. Screened at Albany Twin (West Coast theatrical release) Oct. 28, 2022. Metacitic rating 84%.

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