Spoiler-Free Review: “Decision to Leave” (2022) starring Park Hae-il & Tang Wei

From a mountain peak in South Korea, a man plummets to his death. 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. But as he digs deeper into the investigation, he finds himself trapped in a web of deception and desire. -Official Synopsis

If I cannot avoid it, then I embrace it.Park Chan-wook (director), when asked re: modern technology in this film

This film (streaming on MUBI) is the official submission of South Korea for the Best International Feature Film category of the 95th Academy Awards in 2023. I’d previously seen The Handmaiden, also directed by Park Chan-wook (who is in a league of his own); here we find a V different (yet also compelling) story. I was curious to see it, as I heard it was a blend of mystery, noir, and (slow burn) romance. The inspo for Decision to Leave was the Swedish crime novel series The Story of a Crime by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, which is re: aging police detective Martin Beck and contains social critique. At first, Chan-wook didn’t like the idea of using text messages; he’d considered a period piece (where the characters send hand written letters). When he decided on a modern setting, he put in a smart watch, voice recordings, and translation apps. Chan-wook used cell phone POV shots to show that the characters are NOT only looking at the screens, BUT to give a sense that they’re looking at the other person.

I envisioned it to be slow and gradual, but the actor [Hae-il] held the look for a moment too long before asking for the pattern to unlock her cell phone. -Chan-wook, when asked re: the possible “love at first sight” element

Jan Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is an experienced cop in the big city of Busan; he’s in middle-age, wears custom-tailored suits, BUT can also run/fight better than some of the younger men. He’s a “dignified” man who is perhaps TOO invested in his work; one reviewer was reminded of Det. Vincent Hanna in Michael Mann’s Heat. Like many modern marrieds in South Korea (as my friend explained after her recent trip to Seoul), he and his wife (a scientist) live/work in separate cities, so see each other on weekends. The femme fatale is Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei, co-star of Lust, Caution), who reminded me of those beautiful/mysterious women of classic Hollywood. Both of the leads are able to portray vulnerability so well! It’s obvious that some of the authorities are suspicious of Seo-rae b/c she is Chinese (a foreigner) and much younger than her wealthy/powerful husband. There is a younger cop partnered w/ Hae-joon who provides comedy, as he has a LOT to learn and improve upon in his work.

This film is esp. well-edited and creatively shot, as many critics noted. There is much natural beauty to admire, going from city to mountains and- finally- the sea. There is no doubt that these filmmakers have an unique take, as they embrace, yet also subvert, the tropes of the crime drama. I esp. enjoyed the (gentle) romantic scenes in the 2nd act; Chan-wook said he was inspired by David Lean’s Brief Encounter. Many viewers were reminded of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, though the director said that wasn’t an influence.

Brief Reviews of Recent Views (DEC 2022)

Dead End (1937) starring Sylvia Sydney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, & Claire Trevor

The Dead End Kids (a teen ensemble of actors who’d also appeared on Broadway) are introduced in their Midtown East (NYC) slum, overlooked by the new apts of the ultra-rich. Their antics, some funny, some vicious, alternate w/ subplots: jobless architect Dave (Joel McCrea- one of Hollywood’s “Everyman” actors) is torn btwn Drina (Sylvia Sydney- a big star of the ’30s), his hard-working/childhood friend and Kay (Wendy Barrie), the glam mistress of a rich man; gangster “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart- before his leading man days) returns to his old neighborhood and finds that nobody is glad to see him. Then violent crime, BOTH juvenile and adult, impacts the neighborhood and its inhabitants.

Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights to Sidney Kingsley’s play for $165,000 – a V large amount at the time (equivalent to nearly $3M today). The play had been a huge success on Broadway; its content had to be altered b/c of censorship in film. As some of my fellow classic movie fans know, producers had a LOT more power than directors in the Hollywood studio system. William Wyler (director) wanted to film on location on the streets of NYC, but Goldwyn insisted that the movie be made in the studio. Richard Day (art director) was assigned to design the sets, which were the some of the MOST elaborate sets in film history. Bogart (who was borrowed from Warner Bros.) got his role after George Raft turned it down; James Cagney was Goldwyn’s 1st choice. In order to get past the censors, references to Francey (a young Claire Trevor) being a prostitute were veiled (though mentioned in the original play).

The Mark of Zorro (1940) starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, & Basil Rathbone

The Jagged Mark of His Sword Struck Terror to Every Heart – But One! -A tagline for the movie

I’m a big fan of The Mask of Zorro (1995) starring Antonio Banderas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Anthony Hopkins. Many of you will know re: the premise of this movie: a young Spanish aristocrat, Don Diego Vega (Tyrone Power- 26 y.o.), pretends to be a “fop,” BUT protects the poor/powerless folks of Los Angeles (then a part of Mexico) as the masked vigilante- Zorro (“fox” in Spanish). Many viewers have commented that Zorro (who hails from the early 1820s) is a precursor to the superheroes we know/love today. Lolita Quintero (Linda Darnell- just 16 y.o.) is the love interest; she meets Zorro (in disguise) and is impressed by his words. Lolita’s greedy/corrupt uncle, Don Luis Quintero (J. Edward Bromberg), has taken over Diego’s father’s job; his elegant/shrewd wife, Inez (Gale Sondegaard), dreams of being presented in the royal court of Spain. However, the main threat to Zorro is Don Luis’ right-hand man- Capt. Esteban Pasquale (Basil Rathbone- a trained fencer). The swordfight btwn Power and Rathbone will amaze you- WOW!

Blood and Sand (1941) starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, & Anthony Quinn

Love flamed in the shadow of death! -A tagline for the movie

Illiterate Spanish peasant Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power) rises meteorically to fame and fortune as a bullfighter, ONLY to sow the seeds of his own downfall. This movie didn’t impress me as much as the previous one; Power and Darnell are paired up again, BUT then Hayworth comes into the mix. The costumes looked great (IMO), esp. the ones worn by the bullfighters. There is a steamy (for that time) dance btwn (real) Latin hotties- Hayworth and Anthony Quinn (who plays Power’s friend/competitor). Power was Irish-American, though this dark hair/eyes and gorgeous looks got him cast in “exotic” roles.

The Racket (1951) starring Robert Mitchum, Lizabeth Scott, & Robert Ryan

The big national crime syndicate has moved into town, partnering up with local crime boss Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan). There are ONLY two probs: First, Nick is the violent type, preferring to do things the old-fashioned way instead of using the syndicate’s more business-like methods. The 2nd prob is Capt. McQuigg (Robert Mitchum), an honest cop and the loyal Officer Johnson (William Tallman). They take on the Nick and try to foil the syndicate’s plans to elect Welch, the crooked prosecutor running for judge. I wanted to see it b/c of Mitchum and Ryan; Eddie Muller (TCM) commented that they should’ve switched roles. Muller also noted that it had 3 different writers and 5 directors over its (V troubled) production! Mitchum later said there were many reshoots.

Back from Eternity (1956) starring Robert Ryan, Anita Ekberg, & Rod Steiger

A South American plane loaded with an assortment of characters crash-lands in a remote jungle area in the middle of a storm. The passengers then discover they are in an area inhabited by cannibals, so MUST escape before they are found. Ryan is giving it his 100% (as he does in every role), BUT he doesn’t come in until 15 mins. into the movie. He speaks a BIT of Spanish- V cool! Swedish model Ekberg (sadly) can’t act and is NOT confident w/ her English. That doesn’t matter to the director/producers, as she’s there mainly for her looks (tall, blonde, and curvy). Later on, there is an (unneeded) catfight btwn Ekberg and another actress- ugh! The standout here is Steiger (looking youngish w/ dark/curly hair); he gets the best lines and is the most interesting (yet potentially volatile) character. Beulah Bondi (mom/grandma in MANY classic films) finally gets out of the house- LOL!

#Noirvember: “One False Move” (1992) starring Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton, Cynda Williams, & Michael Beach

There was no crime in Star City, Arkansas. No murder. And no fear. Until now. -A tagline for the movie

After a drug rip-off which involves 6 murders, the LAPD are on the hunt for a dangerous trio: a sadistic genius- Pluto (Michael Beach- best known for ER), his volatile former cellmate- Ray (Billy Bob Thornton- also co-wrote the screenplay)- and Ray’s 20ish gf- Fantasia (Cynda Williams). Evidence indicates that these fugitives are headed to the small town of Star City, Arkansas. Detectives Dud Cole (Jim Metzler) and John McFeely (Earl Billings) contact the local Chief of Police- Dale Dixon (Bill Paxton)- then head to Star City to continue their investigation. Dale, an energetic cop/family man, is excited by the chance to participate in a nationwide manhunt.

Can something from 1992 look fresh and unexpected (to modern/jaded eyes)? Every element is firing on ALL cylinders in this (lesser-known) indie film: acting, directing, editing, sound/music, sets/production design, costumes/hair, etc. I kept hearing about how great it was on movie podcasts, so decided to check it out (Amazon Prime). This is NOT a typical action/crime/drama, as it’s more interested in character development. None of the main ensemble is what he/she seems at 1st glance. I was a BIT surprised to see Paxton in a complicated role; he is perfectly cast and able to show his range. Thornton (sporting a few extra lbs. and rat-like ponytail) is an immature/sloppy/volatile villain; his trigger finger is itchy. Beach (pressed/polished) is a calm/calculated villain; he is more dangerous than his partner. Williams (who was married to Thornton: 1990-1992) is NOT the strongest of actors, BUT she does well here, being paired w/ seasoned actors. Like MANY women (incl. women of color), Williams didn’t have much of a career after her 20s. She is also known for her supporting role in Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues (playing a singer/one of the love interests of Denzel Washington’s character).

The issue of race adds another layer to the story. The director Carl Franklin (a former actor) is a Black man; I 1st heard of him in 1995 (when I saw another great neo noir- Devil in a Blue Dress– starring Washington). The racism depicted in this movie is casual/subtle. The contrast between life/values of the city vs. the small town/country are shown also. For those who want danger, I admit that I was on my the edge of my seat during several scenes. The tension builds… and builds… until the (emotionally powerful) climax! This film was considered “too violent” when it premiered at Sundance; it was produced by a company that makes movies that go direct to video. Luckily, One False Move did get a (limited) big screen release, after critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel spoke of its merits. Siskel put this movie as his fave of 1992; Ebert placed it in 2nd place- WOW! Some of you may recall that 1992 was an esp. strong year for movies; these are some titles: A Few Good Men, Damage, Howard’s End, Malcolm X, The Last of the Mohicans, and Unforgiven.

[1] The film starts off quite violently, but once it gets going, the emphasis is on good old fashioned character study.

[2] Franklin has a wonderful way with his camera, only revealing enough for us to fill in the blanks, and often his camera is used as a character POV device, with close ups and cuts blending seamlessly with mood of the story.

[3] The script deals with the themes of the contrast between the country and the city, racism, and the mask that many people wear to hide the complexities of their lives and their past. Somehow, all these themes come together in the most seamless and nuanced manner to enhance the poignancy of the film.

[4] I have seen this movie twice. The first time, for the whole movie I was on the edge of my seat. This was an intense film. From the extremely brutal beginning to the climatic end, I couldn’t relax once.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: “State of Grace” (1990) starring Sean Penn, Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, & Robin Wright

A family ripped apart by violence. A love corrupted by betrayal. A friendship stained by blood. -A tagline for the movie

This is the month when ALL of us film noir fans celebrate the genre; I’m starting off w/ a neo noir which MANY won’t know about. A young Boston patrolman, Terry Noonan (Sean Penn), is recruited to go undercover in his old neighborhood (Hell’s Kitchen in NYC) and infiltrate the Irish mob run by the older brother- Frank Flannery (Ed Harris)- of his childhood best friend, Jack Flannery (Gary Oldman). To complicate matters further, Terry’s 1st love that he is still pulled toward- Kathleen (Robin Wright- in her early 20s)- is the younger sister of the Flannery brothers. Penn and Wright became a couple during the filming; they have good chemistry here. Several incidents in this movie are based on testimony given by captured NYC mobsters, incl. the meeting in the restaurant w/ the Italian mafioso and the dead man’s hand sequences.

I never heard of this film (shot partly inside one of Trump’s hotels) until recently; it was released in the same year as the (now mob classic) Goodfellas! Who could live up to that comparison!? The director, Phil Joanou, was in his late 20s (like some of his actors) when this movie was made. Though the (then up-and-coming) actors are hungry (and doing their best), the script is NOT very strong. As MANY experienced actors have commented over the yrs: “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” I stopped the movie 3x while watching it last weekend to do chores (which I hate doing – LOL); this proved that it lacked momentum. It is also too long- 2 hr. 14 mins. When this happens in a movie categorized as “action/crime/thriller,” it’s NOT a good sign.

Though Penn would go on to become a big name 1st, I was more impressed by Oldman (who has long-ish hair and a grungy look). His NYC accent is flawless and he seems to totally inhabit his volatile, hard-drinking character. In the few quiet scenes, Oldman gets to show the hidden insecurity/vulnerability of Jackie, such as when he and Harris share a hug. Oldman hails from an area of London which is known to be tough. Fun fact: Oldman fell in love w/ Uma Thurman while working on this film; she was the former gf of the director. I learned that Penn and Oldman performed a (fiery/dangerous) stunt themselves- yikes! Harris has long been a character actor that I admired; Wright is also good (as I expected), though early in her career. Look out also for John Turturro and a V young/skinny John C. Reilly in (smaller) roles. If you like neo-noirs, the ’90s aesthetic, mob movies, and/or the gritty side of NYC, then check it out (free for Amazon Prime subscribers).

“Storm Warning” (1951) starring Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, & Steve Cochran

On the way to a job, a NYC based model, Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers), decides to stop at a small town (Rock Point) to visit her sister, Lucy Rice (Doris Day), who she hasn’t seen in 2 yrs. She will be able to finally meet Lucy’s husband, Hank (Steve Cochran- a character actor who often played villains), who works at the local mill. Upon arriving in town, Marsha witnesses a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) murder! She saw two of the men’s faces (after they removed their hoods), BUT they didn’t see her. We soon learn that the man was Walter Adams, a reporter from out of town who’d been investigating the KKK. Upon later arriving at Lucy’s house, Marsha is shocked to see that Hank was one of the men involved in the murder! Marsha is speechless for a moment, wondering how she’ll break the news to her sister (who looks to be SO happy w/ her life). Meanwhile, the county prosecutor, Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), knows that the KKK committed the murder. It seem that everyone in town is aware of this, BUT Rainey knows that none of the locals will come forward to implicate the KKK.

Sheriff Art Jaeger: Well, that’s all there is. I take orders. You give me an order, l’ll do it. You know anybody in Rock Point who will go to the inquest for you and testify against the Klan? Tell me, and l’ll bring ’em in. If you don’t, and you don’t, stop kicking my men around for not doing what you can’t do yourself.

Burt Rainey: I know. But every time someone from New York, Washington, or points north, starts poking his nose in our affairs, we holler foul. Well, if we don’t want the meddling, one of these days we’re gonna have to start cleaning up our own messes. You and me. All of us.

Warner Bros. wanted Lauren Bacall to star, but she’d decided to travel to the Belgian Congo (as it was then called) w/ her husband, Humphrey Bogart, who’d be making The African Queen (1951). This is Day’s first non-singing role. Joan Crawford was asked by studio boss Jack L. Warner to play the lead role; Crawford declined by saying: “Come on, Jack. No one would ever believe that I would have Doris Day for a sister!” LOL- too real! Alfred Hitchcock liked Day’s performance here so much that he asked her to act in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Day was V happy to work w/ Rogers; before Day’s success as a big band singer, she’d aspired to be a dancer (and Rogers was one of her childhood idols). The writers (Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks) were known for fine work; Brooks was nominated for 6 Oscars over his long career.

Burt Rainey: Nobody saw anything. Nobody heard anything. It’s a shame Adam’s body keeps getting in the way.

Walt Walters: I don’t know who’s the guiltier, the one who commits the crime or the one who just stands by and refuses to do anything about it.

Burt Rainey: Sometimes, I sit around for hours trying to figure that one out.

This is an (oddly) compelling film noir/melodrama that I saw recently for the 1st time (Amazon Prime). It’s playing during the Noir City DC film festival at AFI (in my neighborhood of Silver Spring, MD). Where is this town located: Midwest, Southwest, or South? None of the locals have a Southern accent. Christmas is coming soon, BUT there is no snow or Winter weather. There is no mention of race; the ONLY Black residents are seen in a crowd scene (blink and you’ll miss them). There are references to “safety” (incl. of women on the streets) and “outsiders” (who are looked upon w/ suspicion). Local lawmen and businessmen are fearful and complacent; they’ve put up w/ the KKK’s influence for yrs. The KKK is considered more of a criminal organization rather than a hate group.

[1] In many ways, this is a taut and excellent drama. BUT, it also pulls some of its punches. It’s VERY strange that there are no black folks as characters in the film–not even as the victim. Now I am NOT saying the KKK didn’t sometimes kill whites, but this was the exception to the rule and completely negates the whole racism angle. It’s sad, but the film seemed to want to play it safe by playing it that way. However, while Hollywood was very hesitant to address race…

[2] The Ku Klux Klan might have been the Elks in white sheets. No pun intended, but they get quite a white washing here. No mention at all of their racism or hatred of Catholics, Jews, and foreign born of all kinds. Still they are a nasty bunch who have a habit of doing in people who disagree with them.

Ronald Reagan here is a District Attorney who is bland in a very poorly written role. The problem with the Klan was that the various county District Attorneys in the South were more than likely Klan members, or who, at best, just looked the other way. After all, these cretins with the hoods were the very voters who put in the District Attorneys. When the Klan was prosecuted, if witnesses were found against it back in those days, it was always done at the federal level by appointed United States Attorneys.

[3] …this film isn’t very good as a history lesson… […] Storm Warning is still pretty entertaining and worth a look for anyone curious about how such subject matter was treated in an era of censorship and post-war political atmosphere.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews