Detective Hae-jun has trouble sleeping. That’s understandable. He’s a homicide detective, you see, and he’s recently given up smoking. His wife lives out of town, in a place perpetually shrouded by fog, and thanks to his work they only see each other on weekends. At night, he either volunteers for stakeouts, or dutifully lies awake in a neat little flat with photographs from unsolved cases hidden behind a curtain over his desk.
It’s a set-up which feels more at home in 1940s New York than 2020s Busan, but with Decision to Leave director Park Chan-wook has found a wonderful fusion of the old and the new. It’s a film where crimes are solved using fitness tracking apps, even while a femme fatale enters the room smoking a cigarette. The result is a thoroughly modern spin on the classic film noir, with enough grumpy detectives, bloody murders and attractive people hanging out in the rain to keep the most die-hard genre fans happy.
Though Detective Hae-jun does spend a bit of time chasing criminals—scenes artfully shot, once again showing off Park Chan-wook’s action credentials—like the best grizzled investigators he’s a bit of a softie at heart, and duly the film’s focus is on the steamy relationship he strikes up with the widow of a recent murder victim. The chemistry he strikes up with Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is the quiet kind: they order the nice sushi to eat in the interrogation room; they cook for each other, and share tips on how to get a good night’s sleep.
As a romance it flies comfortably under the radar, and there’s something lovely about that. It contrasts with the genre conventions they’re surrounded by, so it’s refreshing to see moments of genuine human connection in amongst what amounts to a fairly by-the-numbers murder investigation. But where the plot perhaps isn’t as knotty as you might hope, the script more than makes up for it with a wicked sense of humour and a playfulness at odds with its grisly shots of ants crawling over a corpse.
The cast bring a lot to the material too. Park Hae-il and Tang Wei are wonderfully restrained in the leads, while Jung Yi-seo brings real warmth to what could easily have been an empty role as Hae-jun’s wife. Go Kyung-Pyo provides some great comic relief as an almost parodically inept cop, but like all the others there’s a depth to the performance that heightens the whole film.
Where this year’s Nightmare Alley used the noir genre to explore the nastier side of human nature, Decision to Leave chooses to see the good in people. He might be a homicide detective, and she might be a murder suspect. But the film makes clear that, more importantly, they’re people. Just a cop, stood in front of a widow, asking what she thinks of his Chinese food. Maybe romance isn’t dead after all.
Decision To Leave screens at the BFI London Film Festival on October 14, and arrives in UK cinemas October 21.