Film Review: Decision to Leave

By Matthew Moorcroft

Highest Recommendation

  • Directed by Park Chan-wook
  • Starring Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Lee Jung-hyun, Park Yong-woo
  • R

Park Chan-wook is one fascinating guy huh? One of South Korea’s most enigmatic talents, it’s not surprising that as Korean cinema has flourish over the past several years, Chan-wook himself has remained something of a cinephile only name. While his contemporaries like Bong Joon-ho and Hwang Dong-hyuk have achieved mainstream status in the West, Chan-wook’s mix of dark subject matter, humor, and highly stylized direction remains a difficult to sell to some general audiences, even if something like Oldboy is widely popular in some circles.

Decision to Leave, his latest, might actually be the savior to this issue, as it’s easily his most accessible yet. This isn’t a slight against it, though, as it still keeps all of his trademarks remarkably intact and manages to also be one of his most meticulous and precise films to date from a sheer technical perspective. It’s kind of a marvel on how well this thing is produced from every angle, as each shot so gorgeously framed and every pan so thought out that it almost seems like he can do this in his sleep.

A mix of romance, neo-noir, mystery, and dark comedy, Decision to Leave is erotically charged without sharing so much as a single sex scene, and said sex scene is only served to highlight how our lead views sex in general. It’s a transaction, something done between couples less out of love and more out of obligation. And then he meets Song Seo-rae, a suspect on a case that he becomes keen on despite evidence that she is likely culprit behind a murder. Decision to Leave then plays out like a twisted, if shockingly romantic and swooning, version of Hitchcock. This is Vertigo and Rear Window if it was also Thirst without the sex.

Chan-wook direction is mostly the star here, as he is in top form throughout all of this. It’s impossible to not notice either, as he’s flashy as hell but with purpose, begging to be noticed and dissected for years to come. But the great thing about Chan-wook as a director is that while his direction isn’t subtle at all, his theming and character writing are nuanced, layered, and interesting, mainly for the fact that they defy numerous conventions in regards to standard tropes and archetypes. The way Decision to Leave in particular flips the script multiple times on the femme fatale trope is nothing short of spectacular, constantly making you rethink the story and narrative while never losing sight of the fact that, at heart, this is as noir as noir gets, complete with a detective who is somewhat corrupt and the police force who is even worse then he is.

As such, it’s Tang Wei that walks away the clear MVP of the whole cast here, even if she is equaled at many points by the always great Park Hae-il who just shines here. Their chemistry is electric, sparking off the screen in ways that are just as sexy and charged as they are genuinely heartfelt, wholesome, and sweet. It’s a achingly romantic film in a lot of ways but it’s when the two of them share short, sweet glances or small touches is where they feel the most alive. And then when they are apart, their lack of life becomes much more noticeable, and all the more tragic when you realize this romance is doomed from the getgo.

And despite that tragedy though that lingers throughout it’s entire runtime, Decision to Leave is also shockingly funny in the right ways. In fact, it might be his funniest film yet, balancing between stellar comedic timing from it’s side characters and great gags in the midst of the more serious sections of it’s labyrinthian crime plot to great effect. It’s hard to deny that, above all else, Park Chan-wook is a master of balance, never approaching a film with a singular genre or tone in mind but instead as one of many. His films are always a blender, and there is something highly unique about Decision to Leave‘s own blender in that regard.

It’s no surprise that Decision to Leave, in retrospect, is one of the best films of the year. From it’s immensely satisfying emotional romance all the way to it’s small little technical geniuses – some of the shot work in this is nearly impossible to figure out, like how did they do some of this! – it’s a marvel of a film. It’s getting a little redundant to say but he really has outdone himself once again here, and it’s a must watch for anybody even vaguely interested in this. So good!

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