The Decision to Leave (2022) is a movie from a bygone era by Park Chan-wook. Briefly without spoilers about one of the main films of the year on the eve of the theatrical premiere.
A detective (Park Hae-il) takes on the investigation into the death of a man who fell off a cliff. So he goes to the main suspect – the widow of the deceased (Tang Wei). Gradually, the policeman begins to dangerously approach the woman.
The synopsis suggests two conclusions: this is a detective noir with a femme fatale, and the plot is suspiciously reminiscent of “Basic Instinct”. And if the first observation is absolutely valid, then the romantic thriller of Pak Chan Wook is as far from the picture of Paul Verhoeven as possible.
Every frame is breathtaking
There is only one thing to start talking about The Decision to Leave: it is a fucking beautiful movie. Oh, how many times I wanted to pause the film and consider the deep composition of the frame, color schemes and pampering with lenses.
In terms of this year’s premieres, there is neither a riot of locations, as in “Everything, Everywhere, At Once”, nor a dense veil of stylization from the new “Batman”. And at the same time, the noir piping does not prevent Park Chang Wook from working with each frame in his own way, turning even ordinary interior scenes into something special.
Take at least tricks with a trick from the passage below.
The unusual thing here is that both the detective and the reflection of the woman are in focus at the same time – objects from different focus areas. Of course, this in itself is unnatural: usually the plane of focus is a single area, that is, blur is avoided by all those objects that are at the same given distance from the camera.
How is it implemented? The first thing I thought of was the use of a rare zonal attachment, which consists of a half lens. Thus, one half of the lens is covered with glass and allows you to achieve a second focus point. I will assume that it was her Pak Chan Wook with the cameraman Jung Jong-hoon that was previously used in Oldboy.
However, this version is rejected for two reasons.
First, the nozzle usually produces a visual artifact – a distinct blurring border between the two parts. It can be disguised with composition, but in the Decision to Leave frame, the transition is too neat.
Secondly, in the scene, the translation of focus from the reflection to the person is used several times. In general, this is possible with a nozzle, but the very first translation breaks everything: first, the focus is on both people, and then it leaves the detective for reflection, but at the same time remains on the girl.
All this leads us to the fact that the magic happened in post-production due to the overlay of shots with different focus. Yes, focus translation was also applied inside them! Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like this before.
Continuing the theme of camera work, Park Chan Wook filmed Jung Jong Hoon without camera for the first time since Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). He went on a trip to Hollywood and has already managed to work, for example, with Edgar Wright and, less successfully , on the recent Obi-Wan. So the break of the permanent duet caused some concern.
However, Park found a worthy replacement: Kim Ji Yong took the place behind the camera. He had a hand in perhaps two of Kim Ji Woon’s most visually outstanding films, director of I Saw the Devil: Bitter and Sweet and Secret Agent. In addition, he was listed as one of the operators in Parasite.
The change of operator certainly affected the result. Yes, there are more static shots, less of Jong-hoon’s hypnotic camera zooms, and the lighting has changed. But the emphasis of Pak Chang Wook himself has not gone away and, for example, there are still a lot of shots from a wide-angle lens with a proprietary composition. There were also new solutions, such as inventive filming from a drone.
Compare, for example, the recognizable portrait shot with the slightly different framing from Decision to Quit and Vicious Games.
Pak showed extreme resourcefulness not only inside the frame, but also in editing. Despite the quite trivial plot, the film is filled with an atmosphere of mystical surrealism. The effect of a dream envelops the entire film: the montage of scenes leads from an episode in the mountains, to an interrogation, and then immediately into a bed scene with his wife. And yes, the popular comparison with Won Kar Wai is more appropriate than ever.
The work on the transitions has also been phenomenal: some match-cuts blow your mind. However, the colossal attention to editing is not surprising due to the bloated post-production time. The film was supposed to premiere back in 2021, however, due to the pandemic, most major Korean releases have been delayed. According to the director himself, he did not waste the time he had been given and continued to polish the film.
Due to the attention to every frame and transition, the film literally turns into a puzzle named after Park Chang Wook. It’s fascinating, though it doesn’t always make sense. Like a POV shot of a fish eye. What is it for? Yes, just because it’s Park Chang Wook. And it’s great!
Nevertheless, the whole set of extravagant decisions of the Korean does not always work for the benefit of history. But more on that later in the conclusions.
Unusually restrained cinema
After the free interpretation of Zola in the face of the vampire melodrama “Thirst”, the artistically cruel “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” with a baroque soundtrack and “The Maids”, where baroque and lesbian erotica are already elevated to the absolute, Pak’s new work … surprises with a complete change in trajectory. The Korean director suddenly got rid of the ultra-violence and frankness that has always haunted his films.
Someone will surely say that the director softened due to age, someone will blame it on the conjuncture, but in reality, Park Chang Wook never followed anyone’s expectations.
After the success of Oldboy, the director admitted that his audience consisted of 90% of men, and the fans who asked for an autograph on the hammers frightened him, to put it mildly. Then he took up Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and put a woman at the center of the story.
Now history is repeating itself: Park Chan Wook suddenly decided to make a truly adult movie – without kitsch and pompous cruelty. Yes, to spite everyone.
In his promises, he did not deceive: the rapprochement of the characters here is manifested in barely noticeable gestures and phrases, and not at all in sex. Does it mean that Pak completely betrayed himself and took off some dullness? No matter how. The climax of the film will prove that the Korean virtuoso is able to raise the poetics of cinematography to an unthinkable level, firmly and permanently imprinting individual scenes in the memory.
Sentiment and poetry squared – at this moment of the film, a smile involuntarily slipped through me: “Yes, it was definitely shot by the same grandfather we know.”
In general, there are many recognizable elements from the director: here is both branded humor and extreme melodrama. Even Pak did not get rid of cruelty. It’s just that now it’s not about physical pain, but about the inexorability of the fate of the relationship of two people.
Film phenomenon from the last century
If we collect all the opinions of the Western press of the film together, then the number of references to “Vertigo” by Hitchcock and “In the Mood for Love” by Won Kar-Wai will exceed all decent proportions. But no, don’t think it’s still a very different movie. And yet, The Decision to Leave refers us to that era.
At 22, Park has absolutely no qualms about diving headlong into escapism and exploring the boundaries of relationships by making major auteur films. He remorselessly takes the string with Femme fatale, which we have seen a hundred times, but does not fall into a cliché. And at the same time, there is no genre deconstruction here – the Korean is not at all interested in what is happening around.
And for all the visual symbolism, Pak made all the same genre films: for the audience, not the critics. It’s just that his entertainment tools are the purest language of cinema. Exactly like when social propaganda in the cinema seemed bad manners, when form and style dominated, and films were considered art, not a manifestation or a popcorn attraction.
Here, one can certainly recall Hollywood attempts to return to the last century, such as La La Land. But there, the participant camera with long shots and the mention of Casablanca rather emphasize the paradox: the play on nostalgia is filmed in the present with an eye to the past.
In its external manifestation – the environment, The Decision to Leave, on the contrary, is incredibly modern. Park even jokingly called his work sci-fi. Voice translator, smartphones, smart watches – all this is cleverly woven into the plot here. You involuntarily ask yourself: why is this so little in modern cinema?
Separately, I will highlight the use of screens, which gave some cool shots. If filmmakers learned to work with mirrors back in the avant-garde years of the last century, then such projections look really fresh.
Park Chang Wook nominated for an Oscar for the first time
It’s hard to believe, but the cult director in his homeland really for the first time was honored to represent the country in the category “Best Foreign Language Film” of the American Film Awards.
With Park’s early works, the ill fate was quite understandable: over and over again, they ran into competition with the paintings of more format festival mastodons – Bong Joon Ho, Im Kwon Taek and Lee Chang Dong. However, with the “Servant” that captivated the viewer, everything turned out to be somewhat more complicated.
In 2017, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was impeached after a series of scandals and corruption investigations. During the proceedings, a black list of people was also discovered, which included almost 10 thousand cultural figures. It hit people who were allegedly seen criticizing the government. Such persona non grata were deprived of all state support.
As you may have guessed, Pak was among these “lucky ones”. And since the decision to nominate for an Oscar is controlled by the Ministry of Culture, the ban was obvious. Instead of The Maid, Kim Ji Un’s Secret Agent, a technically polished but somewhat nondescript film, went to the competition. As a result, the picture did not make it to the shortlist of nominees.
This time at the Oscars, Park Chan Wook has a promising outlook. There is a high probability even in the nomination for the best director. In any case, according to the results of the Cannes Film Festival, the Western press called the Korean work the only likely contender for the statuette of the submitted paintings. The competition, however, may turn out to be solid due to a very tight year with premieres from eminent directors.
However, against the chances of “Decision to leave” plays its genre. Detective noir, a work full of escapism – this is something that has not been quoted by American film academics for a long time. So I would not count on repeating the path of “Parasite“.
Did he surpass “Oldboy” and “The Handmaid”?
Predicting the reaction of the mass audience is actually not difficult: it is unlikely that he will put The Decision to Leave next to the two artistic flagships.
If everything is clear with “Oldboy” and so, then the success of “The Servant” was that it finally came together with the technical perfection of Chang Wook the director, with the action-packed involvement of Chang Wook the screenwriter.
Unfortunately or fortunately, The Decision to Leave is rather closer to Thirst, where the picture is an endless canvas for the realization of the director’s talents of the master, and the story stands a little further away. So here, for example, the detective part is an absolute convention that only frames the story.
Is it bad? Yes, hell knows. All the same, Pak Chan Wook is at the very top of his game, in which he has no equal, and which he clearly does not intend to interrupt yet.
Even if the story doesn’t move you (but it did), The Decision to Quit is still an outstanding audiovisual work of art and definitely not to be missed. At least in order to grumble senilely upon leaving the cinema: “they don’t make films like this anymore.”
This is probably my most vivid film experience of the year so far and, damn it, I’m ready to eat my socks if something suddenly interrupts it in terms of performance in the remaining three months.