It may not seem like it at first glance, but Park Chan-wook’s films are those of a distinctly romantic disposition. His narratives typically explore the tension that arises when erotic and emotional idealism meets cold, hard reality; in his films, the only happy romances can be found in either the dispassionate confines of a mental institution, or in the shape of star-crossed lovers fleeing a war-torn country in disguise. For the most part, at least one party in each of his central couples has to shoulder an awful burden in order to keep their flame alive – even if it means purposefully wiping their own memories, so as to forget they’ve fallen for the one person they need to keep away from.
That subtly romantic spark is alive once again in his latest film, the widely acclaimed Decision to Leave, a film which transforms a familiar Hitchcockian tale of obsession into an unconventional (but achingly sincere) tale of unrequited love. It takes a while to fully register, but this is far closer to something in the vein of In the Mood for Love than Vertigo, the masterpiece to which it has been compared in seemingly every breathless review to date. Park isn’t interested in telling conventional love stories, even if it’s becoming clearer that this is his predominant focus as a filmmaker. The police procedural at this film’s surface rarely proves involving, but the deeper exploration of the inexplicable nature of desire feels like the overarching thesis of all his work to date. What a shame it just isn’t as exciting as the vast majority of it.
If fans are disappointed by Park’s latest, it’s because they will be priming themselves for far seedier twists and turns than the elusive setup goes on to deliver. In Busan, we’re introduced to Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a workaholic cop who has been assigned what looks like a straightforward case; a mountain climber has plummeted to his death, and all the evidence points towards his Chinese wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei) being the suspect. Almost instinctively, however, Hae-jun is insistent that she’s completely innocent, and that what unfolded was a suicide – and, if you’ve seen any nineties thriller, you’ll know that the cop’s increasing infatuation with the suspect only continues to cloud his judgement as they’re drawn closer together.
It’s a simple thriller setup, but one that grows increasingly convoluted to its own detriment as it progresses; in particular, the way in which the second half subverts the first doesn’t prove as satisfying in practice as it likely was on the page. The bare bones of the narrative makes it sound like a Basic Instinct style erotic thriller when described, but here, the sexual nature of that obsession is largely left implicit, even as it does remain the driving force of the narrative. Park never presents his female lead in the overtly hyper-sexualised light you’d typically expect from this trashy premise – instead, Seo-rae is written more as an object of intrigue, albeit one not robbed of her own agency. She is, for want of a better term, a manic pixie dream murderer: an eccentric, mysterious female figure whose inherent danger has been diminished in our protagonist’s mind by the various quirks she possesses. As he surveils her behaviour, you can sense him thinking to himself that he can fix her, abandoning all logic to try and obtain the sort of woman who only usually exists in the movies.
If there is a single flaw with Decision to Leave, it’s that the film never allows this tale of romantic obsession the space to breathe outside of the procedural it’s wrapped up in, with the audience kept at a very deliberate remove from the unconventional coupling. As a result, it’s one of Park’s least seedy works to date – this might be the first of his films you could safely watch with your parents – but that newfound maturity when approaching his usual thematic obsessions does make it considerably less exciting. It’s an undeniably well-crafted tale, with two fine performances at its centre, but it doesn’t fully shake the viewer in the sense that the equally ingeniously plotted likes of Oldboy and The Handmaiden have previously managed, but without the sheer outrageousness that made them so memorable. Perhaps if you’ve never seen one of his films before, this is the ideal introduction to his world, but for the more seasoned fans, you might be surprised why such a lesser work has become one of his most widely acclaimed.
Written by Alistair Ryder