Saturday, May 18, 2024

Unshakable “Decision to Leave” Is South Korean Cinema’s Latest Revelation

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Decision to Leave will be a revelation to anyone just catching up with Korean cinema. Asian movies in general and Korean movies in particular have been the future of film for the last quarter century, in part because the future has come to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and China at bullet-train velocity, and in the process has wiped the past clean, a blank slate on which cinema has been reimagined. In movies like Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Memories of Murder, Crush and Blush, Pietà, Snowpiercer, Train to Busan, The Villainess, On the Beach at Night Alone, and Burning—not to mention the world-rocking TV series Squid Game—the melodrama of pulp fiction mixes with the sociology of economic class, an eroticism that’s all the more explosive for how repressed it is. In Decision to Leave, the timeless sea, mountains, and fog of South Korea on one hand and the text messages, voice recordings, and smartwatches of the 21st century all have their roles in an unfolding story of identity and homicide, existential futility, and unhinged passion.

These movies can be intense to a fault—Pietà and the landmark Oldboy sometimes verge on the unwatchable—but their arrival in the world’s cultural consciousness is beyond dispute. The breakthrough was 2019’s Parasite, which buried filmmaker Bong Joon-ho in Oscars for best picture, director, and screenplay. Parasite is a preeminent example of how successful art is so often about being in the right place at the right time. Not the best Korean movie ever made, Parasite was nonetheless a phenomenon that struck a chord having to do with the obscene chasm between haves and have-nots for audiences whom capitalism failed and egalitarian democracy imperiled. Like most major Korean writer-directors, Bong’s filmography mixes genres of crime, horror, black satire, and science fiction in a freewheeling fashion.

One of the advantages of a new cinema is that it doesn’t know what’s not supposed to be done. Wild, irreconcilable tonal shifts abound in Parasite—are we supposed to gasp, flinch, laugh? yes—and the results are insights into human behavior that can’t be fully articulated in any language but movies. Now perhaps slightly in the shadow of Bong’s new international prominence is his occasional producer and the greatest working Korean filmmaker, Park Chan-wook. At the still productive age of 59, Park is Korea’s supreme stylist and virtuoso, following up revenge epic Oldboy with the even better revenge epic, Lady Vengeance, delinquent-vampires-in-love epic Thirst, erotic lesbian epic The Handmaiden (Park’s masterpiece), epic espionage remake The Little Drummer Girl, and now the neo-noir epic Decision to Leave.

Korean movies have been the future of film for 25 years.

Preliminarily a generic murder mystery, Decision to Leave’s two-and-a-half hours are a full blast of Park’s cinematic lexicon if you’re ready for it. Narratively labyrinthine, it’s packed with minor moments that circle back (or forward) to other moments you might not notice until a second viewing, along with subplots that involve secondary relationships that bubble up to flood the blueprint of the ongoing story while paranoid imaginings mingle with what’s “really” happening—sometimes in the past, present, and future all at once. What grounds Decision to Leave are the performances of Park Hae-il’s detective, as obsessed as he is tightly wound, and particularly Tang Wei’s femme fatale, who’s ultimately as deadly to herself as to anyone else. By all rights, Tang should have been an international superstar ever since her performance in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution 15 years ago, so scorching it got her banned for a while in her native China. As with so much of Korea’s new wave, you may not immediately know what to make of Decision to Leave, but as the hours and then the days pass, you’ll find yourself unable to shake the film’s final scene—the most haunting ending in any recent cinema from anywhere—as well as the nagging suspicion that you may have just seen the year’s best movie.

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