There is captivation without consummation in Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave, a stunning looking and sometimes confounding slice of pulp fiction. Its central romance is unique in the lack of actual sexual activity mixed with an abundance of genuinely felt romantic tension. There’s a dreamy like tone that echo the fantasies likely occurring in the lead detective’s smitten head. In that sense, calling this the filmmaker’s homage to Vertigo is fair. As in Hitchcock’s masterpiece, the fall may kill you.
In South Korea, the fall does kill a man while rock climbing and Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) suspects it’s not an accident or suicide. The deceased’s younger wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei) doesn’t behave as the typical widow. She immediately goes back to work as an elder caregiver by reasoning that a living client takes precedent over a dead spouse. Hae-jun has his suspicions while his wild card partner (Go Kyung-po) is convinced of her guilt.
The interrogation scenes between Hae-jun and Seo-rae display the former’s infatuation with her. He treats her to high end cuisine during the probes while dealing with language barriers (she primarily speaks her native Chinese). Outside of the station, he’s eager to stake her out and eventually welcome her to his world. The detective at first seems happily married to the sweet Jung-an (Lee Hung-hyun), but the bliss appears to be a facade. He lives in a separate apartment during the week where his insomnia allows him to obsess over unsolved mysteries. The latest fixation and enigma is Seo-rae.
What is love (as Haddaway once asked) is ultimately the query of Decision to Leave. I won’t deny being a little confused in moments with its quick excursions into unrelated scenes that take the focus away from the central romance. When a key part of the narrative wraps up midway through, the picture flirts with being anti-climatic during the second half. Chan-wook’s impeccable style behind the camera prevents that from happening. So does some well-placed humor.
Both leads are beguiling with Wei in a star making performance. Decision is open ended as to how the viewer might interpret her actions. Some of Seo-rae’s behavior indicates she may love him too. For Hae-jun, maybe he could find the real answers to his hunches about her if his probing brain wasn’t buried in the sand. Or perhaps having that head in the sand is exactly where it needs to be.
*** (out of four)