A sensation, beginning from the back of the skull, accompanied by a wave of gooseflesh and a heart flutter as dopamine floods the neural pathways. Within the province of cinema, it’s a long sought-after, often elusive feeling, one induced by the realization that a master artist is at work. A willing submission to let go and trust a film to advance and lay bare its cumulative rewards. And there is no better example of this experience than South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave.
That feeling kicks in at around the four-minute mark, when Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a Busan police detective, arrives at the foot of a mountain peak to examine the body of a man who has fallen to his death. The exacting methods of Hae-jun’s investigative techniques mirror Park’s formal ones, as Decision to Leave unfolds with the meticulous care and playfulness of a director in complete control of his talents. The dead man, a retired immigration officer, has a young wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), whose appearance at the morgue to identify her husband’s body lights the spark of an obsessive love, igniting an incredibly tangled fuse. As the very married Hae-jun seeks to eliminate the newly widowed Seo-rae as a murder suspect, sly flirtation evolves into a mutual recognition of kindred spirits, which blossoms into a forbidden, if chaste, love affair.
That the many mysteries swirling around Seo-rae’s involvement in her husband’s death are intrinsic to this courtship provides Park the opportunity to display all manner of visual pyrotechnics and sleights of hand. But those magic tricks belie the deeper themes Park has made a career pursuing: vengeance, naturally, and the toll it exacts; how destructive obsessions can end up being redemptive, but invariably drowned in dark irony. There is a lot going on in Decision to Leave, as small details sprout into major subplots, and motifs return with richer meanings. The twists and convolutions can seem overwhelming, but Park sustains this high-wire act effortlessly. It’s about trust, you see, about letting go, and doing so will reveal as sublimely satisfying a romantic mystery as you're likely to see.
Don't miss our interview with the director, "Park Chan-wook Lets Love Speak Softly in Decision to Leave," Oct. 7, at austinchronicle.com/screens.
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