South Korea may have made big inroads on American TV recently with “Squid Game” and “Pachinko,” and the country’s intriguing film and television industry also has a stronger-than-usual presence at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae’s political thriller “Hunt” premiered as a midnight screening early in the festival; Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” landed a pre-Cannes deal with Sony Pictures Classics and is one of the hits of the Un Certain Regard sidebar; 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 last appearing with “The Handmaiden” in 2016.
Park’s films, whether they are his propulsive and violent “Vengeance Trilogy” of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” or the statelier and sultrier “The Handmaiden,” are nothing if not stylish. He’s one of the most accomplish visual stylists in international cinema, managing to make even the most prosaic locations in “Decision to Leave” – a police station, a parked car – look alluring and dramatic.
He also has a fondness for oversized stories that grow more complex as they develop, with “Decision to Leave” a formidable 2 hour, 18 minute mixture of crime story, love story and meditation on loss. Richly dramatic and at times confounding, it’s a gorgeous piece of work that has the ability to move you in one moment and leave you cold in the next.
It starts with a burst of gunfire, but that’s just from a pair of police detectives who are killing time at the firing range and bemoaning the fact that there are few murder cases to solve these days. Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is apparently a master of the stakeout, and a man perpetually gripped by insomnia. “It’s not that I can’t sleep because I do stakeouts,” he explains at one point. “I do stakeouts because I can’t sleep.”
He gets a new case that could simply be an accident: A man climbs a rocky peak outside Busan and falls to his death – unless he was pushed, or deliberately jumped. Hae-joon and his partner investigate, and immediately wonder why the dead man’s widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei, “Lust, Caution”) is so composed and unemotional.
A police investigation does not exactly make for meet-cute moments, but Park has a way of wringing drama and import out of almost anything; when Hae-joon questions Seo-rae in a police examination room and then sends out for sushi, it plays like a very odd first date. There’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game going on but also a clear attraction, though nobody’s motives remain clear and Park enjoys the art of the tease as he slips in and out of the personal and the procedural.
Hae-joon has a wife that he only sees on weekends, and before long Seo-rae becomes his companion the rest of the week, in a relationship that morphs from surveillance to seduction and turns her from a person of interest to an object of obsession. This is all laid out in a tour de force of intricate filmmaking long on mood and drama and slippery changes of direction.
Park takes his time and weaves the strands into a work of occasionally perplexing beauty; from the craggy peak to impeccably detailed living spaces to a forest clearing with gentle snow flurries, the film grows more lustrous as Hae-joon becomes more complicit in whatever games Seo-rae is playing.
It’s Park’s first film in six years, following a post-“Handmaid” detour to do the English-language TV miniseries “The Little Drummer Girl.” And it puts him right back where he left off, as a remarkable visual stylist who doesn’t always know when to stop but always knows how to impress.