An insomniac detective falls for a beautiful suspect in a suspicious death he’s investigating in “Decision to Leave.” This deceptively simple premise is stretched over two beguiling hours in director Park Chan-wook’s homage to film noir and Alfred Hitchcock. It lulls the viewer, along with the protagonist, into a misty, dreamlike delirium until you’re not even certain of what’s right in front of your face.
Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is the detective in question, an elegant, stoic sort who works cases in Busan during the week and spends free weekends with his wife Yoo Mi-ji (Jung Yi-seo), who lives hours away in Ipo. Even his weekend trips home don’t always happen — people don’t stop murdering because it’s the weekend, he explains, but for now the arrangement seems to suit both. He doesn’t sleep anyway, so he might as well spend his many, many awake hours in the car.
But his world is soon to be upended by a new case involving a skilled climber who has been found dead at the bottom of a very peculiar mountain that looks like a very tall, narrow mushroom. And while this fallen climber might seem like a rather straightforward case, it becomes less so once he gets a glimpse at the dead man’s beautiful widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who is Chinese. Hae-joon is immediately smitten.
Seo-rae is neither innocent victim nor straightforward femme fatale. She doesn’t seem remotely upset that her husband, who is much older and who abused and branded her, is dead. She even wants to look at the pictures from the crime scene. She laughs at inappropriate moments, which she later explains happens when she’s unsure of her Korean, regularly eats ice cream for dinner and provides home care for grannies, who all love her, during the week.
And Hae-joon can’t get enough of her either. He stakes out her apartment at night. He watches her at work with the grannies. And they have what might be considered a very strange “date” too, in an interrogation room in the police station with others watching through the one-way glass. The expensive takeout sushi they consume is filmed so lovingly you half expect it to have its own credit at the end. But it’s clear that Hae-joon, who has just instructed his colleague to not spend too much on his own lunch, is making some very peculiar decisions for such a well-respected, methodical detective.
Seo-rae also knows she’s being watched and seems to almost like it. Is this romantic? Manipulative? Well, that may depend on the individual viewer, but it is intoxicating in its own way.
But lest you think the “Oldboy” director has opted for sexless sentiment over shock, know that he still takes a certain amount of pleasure zooming in on the ants crawling over the deceased’s cloudy eye. It’s the first of many nods to obscured vision, from the mists snaking around the roads in Ipo to a pivotal conversation atop a mountain in which one person is wearing a headlamp. And there is a fair amount of humor too, in imperfect text conversations and lost in translation confusions, as well as from Hae-joon’s various professional partners, who seem to be in their own workplace comedy.
At times, the intricacies of the plot feel almost sadistically confusing — especially after the case is “solved” and the film transitions into a different phase. It almost demands a second viewing just to parse everything we come to learn about Seo-rae, as well as all the cinematic references from “Vertigo” to Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye.”
But the mystery of the murder is not really the point, is it? This is about an obsession that’s both all-encompassing and impossible to rationalize that simply leaves everyone adrift and searching for eternity. LINDSEY BAHR, MDT/AP Film Writer
“Decision to Leave,” a MUBI film in limited theatrical release Friday, has not been rated by the Motion Picture Association, but contains adult themes and some disturbing images of dead bodies. Running time: 138 minutes. ★★★★