South Korea may have made big inroads on American television recently with “Squid Game” and “Pachinko,” and the country’s intriguing film and television industry also has a stronger-than-usual presence at the Cannes of this year. The political thriller “Hunt” by “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae premiered at midnight at the start of the festival; Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” landed a pre-Cannes deal with Sony Pictures Classics and is an Un Certain Regard sidebar hit; and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is in the main competition with “Broker”, his first film shot in South Korea in the Korean language.
And on Monday, veteran Korean director Park Chan-wook premiered his new film, “Decision to Leave,” as part of Cannes’ main competition. Park is no stranger to the festival, having won the Grand Prix for “Oldboy” in 2003 and his last appearance with “The Handmaiden” in 2016.
Park’s films, whether it’s his propulsive and violent “Vengeance Trilogy” of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” or the more majestic and sensual “The Handmaiden”, are simply stylish. He is one of the most accomplished visual stylists in international cinema, managing to make even the most prosaic locations of “Decision to Leave” – a police station, a parked car – alluring and dramatic.
He also has a penchant for oversized stories that become more complex as they develop, with “Decision to Leave”, a terrific 2 hour and 18 minute mix of crime story, love story and meditation on loss. Richly dramatic and at times confusing, it’s a magnificent work that has the ability to move you one moment and leave you cold the next.
It starts with a flurry of gunfire, but it only comes from a pair of police detectives killing time on the shooting range and lamenting that there are few murder cases to solve these these days. Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is apparently a master of surveillance and a man perpetually plagued by insomnia. “It’s not that I can’t sleep because I’m doing surveillance,” he explains at one point. “I do surveillance because I can’t sleep.”
He has a new case that could just be an accident: a man scales a rocky peak outside Busan and falls to his death – unless he was deliberately pushed or jumped. Hae-joon and his partner investigate and immediately wonder why the deceased’s widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei, “Lust, Caution”) is so calm and emotionless.
A police investigation doesn’t exactly make for cute dating moments, but Park has a way of wringing drama and importing almost anything; when Hae-joon interrogates Seo-rae in a police examination room and then sends for sushi, it feels like a very strange first date. There’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game, but also a clear attraction, even if no one’s motivations remain clear and Park enjoys the art of teasing as he slips into the personal and the procedural .
Hae-joon has a wife he only sees on the weekends, and soon Seo-rae becomes his partner for the rest of the week, in a relationship that turns from surveillance to seduction and transforms her from a serious person. interest in an object of obsession. . It’s all presented in a complex filmmaking tour de force long on mood and drama and slippery changes of direction.
Park takes her time and weaves the strands into a work of sometimes disconcerting beauty; from the steep peak to the impeccably detailed living spaces to a forest glade with light snow showers, the film gets brighter as Hae-joon becomes more complicit in all the games Seo-rae plays.
It’s Park’s first film in six years, after a post-“Handmaid” detour to do the English-language TV miniseries “The Little Drummer Girl.” And that puts him back where he left off, as a remarkable visual stylist who doesn’t always know when to quit but always knows how to impress.