Decision to Leave starts hitting you with its decisions from the very start. Its manic opening throws out a lot of information very quickly, such that you don’t really have your bearings until about ten minutes into the story. That’s a choice by acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook not to hold the audience’s hand, and it’s a demanding choice for international audiences, whose ability to keep up with subtitles is complicated by quick edits and the sort of filmmaking you’d want to be free from the constraints of language comprehension. This is not a fault of the film, and as Park expected, we do catch up, with the only important language becoming the language of cinema.


The decision that has a far greater impact on the film’s cohesiveness, and ultimately, on its effectiveness, is the choice to appear to be wrapping up the narrative at about the 95-minute mark, and then to keep going for another 45. Narrative rules might be meant for lesser artists than Park, but there’s a certain journey any film gives its viewers, containing story beats that mentally prepare us for its imminent conclusion. When those beats end up being false friends, it creates a sort of impatience, a question about how much longer this film is going to soldier on past its logical endpoint. Forty-five minutes is a long time to be in that state, even if you are deriving the sort of enjoyment that long stretches of Decision to Leave do provide.

The film is a police procedural with a mystery at its core and a beguiling romantic component, and that’s just fine for us, especially those of us who are fans of Park’s past contributions in these thematic arenas. The A story involves a 60-year-old rock climber found dead at the base of one of his favourite peaks outside Seoul. There’s evidence suggesting he may have fallen, he may have jumped, or he may have been pushed. The latter theory would potentially implicate his much younger wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese woman who appears none too broken up about being a widow. (His monogrammed initials on her stomach may give some indication of the sort of marriage they had.) She’s got the motive but she also has a solid alibi for the time her husband died, which can be established definitively by his watch smashing on the way down, frozen on the time of his death.

The police investigator is Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), and he’s the youngest lead detective on the force. He’s also an insomniac, maybe because he’s married to a woman with whom he no longer feels compatible. The not sleeping makes him a good candidate to stake out Seo-rae for any evidence that runs contrary to her story, and the close surveillance inevitably makes him fall for her.

The story starts to get complicated – one might say convoluted – with the addition of a B story about a thug who is the suspect in a handful of murders, but who the police are having difficulty tracking down. Decision to Leave needn’t have tunnel vision on its primary case, but the introduction of this second story gets at the diffuse nature of Park’s approach that eventually becomes problematic. The transitions between the stories can be abrupt, and Park’s use of voiceover – not narration, but a character telling a story off-screen – is often misleading. The VO will be describing something in the past, and for a moment you think you’re seeing that depicted on screen, only to realise that this is part of the B story and is actually going on right now.


Then there’s the technique Park uses where a character appears present in the action even though he or she is not actually there. For example, when Seo-rae falls asleep with her cigarette ash dangling over her carpet, Hae-jun is there to catch it with an ashtray – even though he’s actually in a car outside her building, viewing this through binoculars. Without all the other narrative flourishes Park is trying to pull off, it would be clear what’s happening here, but Park’s one too many tricks leaves us with moments where we’re adjusting and recalculating our understanding of the story’s actual reality. By the time we’ve caught up we might already be left behind again by the next one.

All this is manageable enough – I mean, who wants to admit they can’t follow a movie? – until the fateful decision to extend the story. Without giving any indication of the nature of this moment of resolution, let’s just say that an on-screen graphic tells us it’s 13 months later. Again operating only on our expectations, we settle in for perhaps five more minutes of showing us where the characters have ended up, perhaps with a little capping bit of irony that adds a final punch to what we’ve been watching. But this is when there’s 45 more minutes of story, which only adds exponential convolutions to what we’ve already waded our way through.


Perhaps the most laborious aspect of this final stretch is that it gets bogged down by callbacks. Throughout Decision to Leave, Park has left us seemingly dozens of little narrative props that get repeated throughout, for some thematic purpose that isn’t entirely clear: a song that gets played over and over, one character’s obsession with statistics, a recurring bit about trying to quit smoking, the insomnia storyline, little bits of life philosophy in lines of dialogue that get repurposed. One or two of these in a movie is good. Two dozen of them exhaust.

Park’s most recent feature-length film, 2016’s The Handmaiden, wasn’t exactly a paragon of storytelling clarity. But it made up for it in other aspects, including the beauty of its cinematography and setting, and satisfying character arcs that excuse a few moments where you aren’t entirely sure what’s going on. Decision to Leave doesn’t have enough of those salvaging grace notes. After David O. Russell’s Amsterdam earlier this month, Decision to Leave seems to be a second case of an acclaimed director returning to feature filmmaking after a long layoff and having too many ideas to fit into one movie. Both of them will probably do better next time.


Decision to Leave is currently playing in cinemas.

5 / 10