South Korean director Park Chan-wook channels Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” at the beginning of “Decision to Leave,” and it’s nothing short of thrilling. A detective, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is investigating a high-profile case about a man who falls to death from a high rocky outcropping — and that man has a beautiful wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who casts a spell over the detective.
The detective, however, has two problems: He already has a wife, and he wonders whether the widow was involved in her husband’s death.
The detective also has a problem with seeing things clearly, as evidenced by his habitual use of eyedrops. And he clearly doesn’t see behind the facade of the beautiful widow, reveling only in the illusions of her allure.
South Korean directors have been producing some of the best movies in the world in recent years. Those films include Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” of 2019, which went on to win four Oscars, including best picture. Earlier that year, it also became the first South Korean movie to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes.
Park has been similarly acclaimed, with such genre gems as “Oldboy” and “The Handmaiden.” “Decision to Leave” only cements his position, with his having won best director this year at Cannes.
As this review was being written, the film had a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Nick Schager of the Daily Beast saying “it’s a genre work of superior, silken craftsmanship, so sinister, serpentine and sexy as to be downright swoon-worthy.”
The swooning builds up because of the seamless way that Park works with his collaborators, editor Kim Sang-beom, a score by Jo Yeong-wook and the cinematography of Kim Ji-yong.
Seo-rae, the woman at the center of the mystery, works as a care-giver for elderly “grannies” who are facing their last days. She establishes an alibi for the day of her husband’s death, saying that she was with one of her patients.
But there’s something off about her alibi. Detectves find her DNA in the skin underneath her husband’s fingernails, and she has been tattooed by her husband with his initials, as if she were his chattel.
It turns out that she sort of was. She fled China on a refugee ship, but was the only one allowed into South Korea, with the others being deported back to China. Her husband-to-be was able to produce papers that Seo-rae was a descendant of a South Korean independence leader, and thus get her into the country.
But her husband has used her refugee status to control her, and she is also wanted for murder back in China. She was also the caregiver for her elderly mother, and she killed her by administering a deadly does of fentanyl, at her mother’s request.
The plot and its multiple complications, however, are not as important as the cinematic mood that Park creates. These types of arthouse movies don’t come along too often. And they are most welcome.
“Decision to Leave” opens Friday, Oct. 21, at the Alamo South and the Alamo Lakeline.