Movie Review ~ Decision to Leave

The Facts:

Synopsis: A businessman plummets to his death from a mountain peak in South Korea. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife, Seo-rae, may know more than she initially lets on.
Stars: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il
Director: Park Chan-wook
Rated: R
Running Length: 138 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  While I take my role as a critic seriously, I pride myself on not being too much of a creaky contrarian who deliberately goes against the majority vote. I’ll let you in on another little secret of this inner world of reviewing movies: it can make for a chilly time on the playground if you are a voice of dissent for a film that’s soared to popularity among the masses. While writing this blog, I’ve experienced that frost a few times, but I’m usually the one who likes the movies everyone wants to toss in the bin, so it’s not so bad. As we make our way to the end of 2022, there’s a much-lauded title I’ve put off discussing that needs to be addressed so I can close the book on it. 

The film is the South Korean mystery Decision to Leave by celebrated director Park Chan-wook, who will forever be linked to the brutal brilliance of Oldboy and, more recently, the striking beauty of The Handmaiden. Decision to Leave won the directing prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is already favored as the frontrunner for Best International Feature at the Oscars, with Park Chan-wook also high on the list to receive his first nomination for Best Director. With all that buzz coming out of Cannes and many good reviews laid down as a golden carpet, why wouldn’t I sit down to this expecting it to knock my socks off?

The thing is, it didn’t. And it’s not just due to overhype or ‘festival fever’ that can affect movies seen by a limited number of reviewers that get their hooks into one film and proclaim it the next big thing. No, for me, Decision to Leave was a miss in the narrative storytelling Park Chan-wook has excelled at in the past. Never known for completely linear storytelling, the director employs some of those same time jolts here. Still, it’s to the detriment and forward motion of his overly serpentine mystery and characters that should be far more intriguing than they ever are. The moment they start to show subterfuge, Park Chan-wook jostles us again somehow, and the snow globe-fragile structure of the piece has to find time to settle.

Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is stretched thin between commuting to work and rarely seeing his wife due to their competing schedules. Any time they get to work on their relationship is put to the side when Hae-joon takes on a case of suspicious death where the wife of a retired immigration officer becomes the main suspect. The man is found dead at the bottom of a mountain, which could be a mere accident, but as Hae-joon and his partner Soo-Wan (Go Kyung-Pyo) dig deeper under the surface, they discover widow Seo Rae (Tang Wei) may have committed the perfect crime. How to prove it, though? And did the deceased have it coming to him?

The basic outline I’m giving you is a tiny tip of an iceberg plot that viewers will crash into repeatedly before the film lumbers to its conclusion after nearly two and a half hours. Admittedly, the plot developments have a Hitchcock flair, but they come at a hefty price: time. Hitchcock knew how to keep the viewer engaged, and I kept getting further detached from every character the filmmakers wanted us to be more interested in. Despite some inarguably breathtaking work by Tang Wei as a possible femme fatale that houses a multitude of oceanic currents under her calm demeanor, I struggled to find a reason to care much about anything.

In many ways, the same negatives that weighed down Christopher Nolan’s 2020 Tenet sank Decision to Leave. Both arrive from directors that have delivered some unforgettable films in the past but have let their love of the process overtake their understanding of the viewer’s experience. I didn’t just find Decision to Leave slack. I found it hard to track. No, I don’t need my hand held, but I need to understand what I’m supposed to be looking for in the first place. 

Movie Review ~ Oldboy {Oldeuboi} (2003)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After being kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, Oh Dae-Su is released, only to find that he must find his captor in 5 days.

Stars: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

Director: Park Chan-wook

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The need for revenge is an impulse that has driven the plot of many a movie throughout the history of cinema.  It’s a great device really, because with audiences being able to relate to the urge to give someone their due, it preloads the characters with all the necessities we’ll require to feel like they’ve received their pound of flesh when the film is over.  I’ve seen a lot of revenge films in my time and though this impressive 2003 South Korean isn’t the most violent one I’ve seen, it wound up leaving a lasting impression on me long after the final comeuppance was dealt.

Opening in 1988 with Oh Dae-Sue (Min-sik Choi) being abducted one rainy night after he passes out in a drunken stupor, the film wastes no time in getting things moving.  Confined in a room that looks straight out of the motel chic décor of the best room at the Bates motel, Oh Dae-Su has no clue why he’s being held or by whom.  In the days that follow a lone television broadcasts the news that his wife has been murdered and his young daughter taken into foster care…all the while he’s helpless to do anything.  Over the next fifteen years, he’s taken care of with sustenance but deprived of any human contact.  Watching the years tick away courtesy of the omini-present television, his entire existence becomes one with the room until the day he’s drugged and simply set free…or so it seems.

With a Good Samaritan beauty by his side and through a series of twisty clues left by a mysterious caller, Oh Dae-Sue’s nightmare isn’t over yet as each secret he uncovers leads him deeper down into a hell he could never imagine.  The final answer given is a true game-changer and one that neither he, nor the audience, can really see coming.  In the dirty game of revenge, sometimes the player becomes the game maker without ever even knowing it.

Writer/director Park Chan-wook made his US debut in 2013 with Stoker (which made my Best of 2013 list) and he brought to that film the same dreamy quality and well-oiled technique that makes Oldboy so intensely watchable.  Several fight sequences are jaw-dropping in their creativity not just in the high flying, bone crunching moves but in the way the director either keeps the camera in constant motion or simply tracks the actors like a tennis match.  It’s never hard to follow and it’s overwhelming in all the good ways.

Min-sik Choi shows remarkable range as the tormented, tortured soul Oh Dae-Sue.  Not yet 40 years old when the film was made he has an old soul look and feel which only grows more set in after his 15 years of solitude.  The journeyman actor also headlined another popular revenge film, 2010’s sleep-with-the-lights-on inducing I Saw the Devil, where he played a truly terrifying serial killer that meets his match when he dispatches the fiancé of the wrong police detective.  I wonder what Choi’s characters from Oldboy and I Saw the Devil would do if they were in the same film together…

It’s easy to see why the film is regarded as a not-so-minor classic in the foreign film arena.  With its labyrinthine plot twists, skilled direction, and masterful lead performance Oldboy is never less than compulsively entertaining and positively haunting.

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Movie Review ~ Stoker

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Nicole Kidman

Director: Park Chan-wook

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s rather interesting that the American film debut of Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy) would be a film that’s so European in its composition.  On the other hand, Chan-Wook is known for his rich visuals that tie into a narrative structure so it could just have been his destiny to be matched up with the script for Stoker, a corker of a thriller that makes no apologies for favoring style over substance.

That’s not to say that Prison Break star Wentworth Miller’s script doesn’t have a lot going for it; the tale of a fractured family with several skeletons in its closet provides some nice opportunities for its cast to go the distance while gleefully coloring outside the lines of character development.  Still, stepping back from my initial reaction to the film I must admit that the overall plot developments do feel very mannered and ordinary.  There’s nothing in the story department that hasn’t been done before in any number of potboiler films concerning unknown relatives with hidden agendas.

What I keep going back to with fondness is the way the film has a devil-may-care attitude as it plays tricks with our perception of what’s really going on.  That’s mostly thanks to Chan-Wook’s constantly moving camera and his clever employment of old-hat film techniques like freeze frames and close-ups. From frame one its clear the movie is ready for action and maintains that level of awareness throughout.

A movie so heavy on technique would only be moderately interesting without an equally dynamic cast to use it on.  Wasikowska plays dour like the best of ‘em and here she’s a sour puss child mourning her deceased father and avoiding her chilly mother (Kidman) at all costs.  Though the preview implies Kidman’s character is a bit shadier, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that this lady is more nuanced than that.  Goode is a UK actor that doesn’t rely on his All American looks to sell his All American Uncle who shows up and moves in before his brother’s body is cold.  Oscar nominee Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) pops in for a curious cameo as a Stoker aunt, Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) is a school acquaintance of Wasikowska, and Phyllis Somerville gets some solid (if brief) mileage as a sage housekeeper.

Soon, Wasikowska and Goode are finding a familial bond exists between them like Wasikowska had with her father…something that begins to drive a wedge further between mother and daughter.  Kidman is rarely without a glass of wine in her hand or glaze over her eyes and I was reminded of the mother in Lolita…so clueless as to what was happening around her.  It’s too late to go back once some truths are finally revealed and more than a few bodies start to pile up around the estate house where the movie runs its course.

The way I see it, Stoker could have gone one of two ways: it could have been an overheated gothic melodrama or a simmering fever dream of excess.  Thankfully it’s the latter and fans of stylishly made thrillers should get a kick out of Stoker’s richly weird performances that balance nicely with its cruel violence.  I can see where the film may be too stylized for some, but give this one strong consideration if you respond well to confidently made films.