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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Decision to Leave"

If you’re familiar with the work of the Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, you might be taken aback by his latest film Decision to Leave, though not because it’s a departure from his typical flashy, macabre style. It’s because the movie is remarkably restrained for a director synonymous with bludgeoning gore and daring sex. Put this film next to Park’s famous Vengeance trilogy, which is soaked in blood and agony, or his erotically charged puzzle box The Handmaiden, and it seems almost chaste by comparison.

But there is violence in Decision to Leave, and it begins in the city of Busan, where an insomniac detective is called to a scene where the body of an older man lies crumpled at the bottom of a mountain. What happened appears obvious: The dead guy, an avowed mountain climber, reached the summit, slipped and fell. An unfortunate accident.

It seems to be an open-and-shut case, until the dead man’s wife comes to the police station to identify the body. She’s a much younger woman, and she doesn’t exactly appear to be wracked with grief. In fact, it becomes clear that she’d be better off without her husband in the picture. The detective is fascinated by this woman. Seduced, even. And as the cop’s involvement in the case intensifies, Park also shows his morally dubious relationship with the primary suspect intensifying in small, nearly imperceptible ways.

I haven’t really given you a sense of just how tricky and unexpected the plot is, but there’s so much more going on in the background. There’s the matter of the cop’s wife, left alone for days at a time. There’s a second criminal investigation that bleeds over into the case of the dead husband, and a slow reveal about two more deaths in the past, one that haunts the detective and another that throws more suspicion onto the subject of his obsession. And just when we think we’ve got our bearings on all of these details, the movie jumps ahead a year, and we’re forced to reset.

Every review of Decision to Leave has compared it to Hitchcock, and Park himself has acknowledged his debt to Vertigo, another film about a troubled detective getting uncomfortably close to a woman who is more than she seems. But I was also thinking about Brian De Palma, who, like Park, amplifies Hitchcock’s droll sensibilities into gruesome, merciless melodramas.

Decision to Leave is such an exquisitely made film that I can’t wait to see it again to simply luxuriate in the look and feel of it — the careful framing, the use of color and musical motifs, the ways in which Park uses jarring jump cuts to suggest extreme violence without showing it.

It’s ultimately a mystery, yes, but the solution to the death at the center of the story is (to once again invoke Hitchcock) basically a Macguffin. What the film is really about is the amorphous nature of desire, and the dangerous lengths to which its wounded souls will go in order to spare themselves — and each other — heartbreak. I love how this movie unfolds and unfolds and then unfolds again, and it’s such a pleasure to be enveloped in a movie that keeps twisting and turning and reinventing itself, and that rewards you for keeping up with it.

Nathan Weinbender is a film critic and one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101” heard Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.