It's near impossible to watch Decision To Leave without memories of Basic Instinct ice-picking their way into your mind. The film may be set in misty South Korea instead of foggy San Francisco, but present and correct is a rumpled, obsessive police detective, plus an enigmatic, mesmerising female suspect who might just be kill-crazy. Yes, this is an erotic cop thriller. Fortunately, though, it’s a Park Chan-wook erotic cop thriller. So, as well as there being zero dance-offs in naff jumpers, the end result is a stunningly shot, cleverly orchestrated and psychologically nimble tale, which single-handedly revitalises one of the hoariest subgenres of all.
Park Hae-il is terrific as lead character Hae-joon, an investigator whose face droops with weariness and paperwork-induced ennui. Returning home each evening for a sleepless night, to lie in bed next to a wife who views sex as a health benefit (“We need to do it every week,” she informs him post-coitus, “even when we hate each other”), he only starts to spark back to life when Seo-rae (Tang Wei) lands up in his interrogation room. But it’s Tang who saunters away with the film. Playing a live-wire walking question mark, flitting language-wise between Korean and her native Chinese, and vibe-wise between softness and menace, the Lust, Caution star casts as much of a spell over the camera as Seo-rae does over Hae-joon. The resulting pas de deux is hypnotic, the pair circling each other slowly, in an entanglement that’s part murder investigation, part swooning romance — plenty of lust and no caution — seemingly headed nowhere good.
Park’s at the top of his game here technically, employing precise editing and audaciously inventive camerawork to pull us into his characters’ minds.
By director Park’s usual standards, this is dialled-down stuff. There are no octopus tentacles writhing out of human mouths (Oldboy), no glimpses of sadistic pornography (The Handmaiden), no vampires shrieking as they burst into flames (Thirst). What flashes of sex and violence the film has are brief and ungaudy: a glimpse of Seo-rae’s thigh as she lifts her dress to show Hae-joon an injury, a brawl with a runaway suspect (chainmail gloves, it seems, are standard-issue police equipment in South Korea). But it turns out that Park doesn’t need wild excess to make a murder-mystery compelling. He’s at the top of his game here technically, employing precise editing and audaciously inventive camerawork to pull us into his characters’ minds. As Hae-joon loses his emotional bearings, his yearnings begin to bleed into the visuals, fantasies blurring into reality, the detective appearing in frames where he shouldn’t be. There’s also a very smart shot from inside a smartphone. It’s a masterclass in subjective storytelling.
The plot, which revolves heavily around apps and phone-screens, requires a lot of focus. And compared to the powerhouse first hour and crackerjack ending, the middle section occasionally feels baggy. But it’s still a tremendous shot of pure Park — suave, sophisticated and sexy. Not to mention very possibly the best erotic cop thriller ever. Sorry, Sharon and Michael.