Sunday, June 23, 2024

How “Decision To Leave” Could Factor Into This Year’s Awards Race

Ever since its acclaimed premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where director Park Chan-wook received the prestigious Best Director award, his idiosyncratic neo-noir and mystery romance “Decision To Leave” has continued to build buzz. The South Korean auteur’s return to the big screen, six years after “The Handmaiden,” had a successful summer-wide release in South Korea and across Asia before proceeding to delight audiences at fall festival showcases in Toronto, New York, and London ahead of MUBI’s wide release for it in the UK and US this October weekend. Having fallen under its magic back in July, the first thing I have to say about “Decision To Leave” is that it has to be seen to be believed. Bask in its hybrid of so many tones, equal parts playful and sly, earnest and melodramatic. It’s full of the blend of unexpected twisted quirks that has defined so much of his work, but also the recurring theme of greater human depths that have been present from “Joint Security Area” onwards. This tale of insomniac detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), who becomes enraptured by an enigmatic widow (Tang Wei) at the center of his latest murder investigation, takes the formulas of mystery and romance and twists and turns in ways you’ve never quite seen before.

Awards-wise, the film has performed terrifically so far, not only at Cannes but also at the Chunsa Film Art Awards, where it snagged Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director, and the Buil Film Awards, where it won Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Music. Awards season buffs may well be interested in what might be next in store, from critics awards to industry awards and possibly even the Oscars. With the right campaign, support from the critics, and what seems to be a gradually changing voting demographic in a year with what could be best described as an ‘eclectic’ set of contenders, many decisions could side in this film’s favor. 

Having been entered as South Korea’s Best International Feature Film entry for the Oscars, this is the most obvious place to start when discussing “Decision To Leave” and its award prospects. Several films are gaining momentum in this category, some with more extreme reactions of praise and vitriol, like Alejandro Inarritu’s “Bardo,” and others with more general wide acclaim at festivals like Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer.” There’s an acclaimed war epic like Edward Berger’s “All Quiet On The Western Front,” which has Netflix backing it as a contender. Smaller, quieter films could have mass appeal and should not be overlooked, like Colm Bairéad’s “The Quiet Girl,” among others. As always, it’s a category that’s very much up in the air. Not even making the shortlist is a guarantee for an Oscar nomination. It can’t tell pundits which way the Academy will lean towards in this category until nominations day, with many popular films missing out in this category in the past. Nevertheless, at this point, it’s looking good for “Decision To Leave,” at the very least, to make the fifteen films shortlist on December 21st.

Believe it or not, for the first time in Park’s illustrious, internationally celebrated career, a film of his has been shortlisted as the South Korean entry for this category. The country’s history in this category has been fascinating to study. Though many South Korean films have made a global impact over the years, including Park’s own Vengeance trilogy, in particular, it wasn’t until 2018 when a South Korean entry, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning,” finally made its way onto the shortlist. However, it missed out on a nomination. Next year, South Korea received its first nomination in the category with Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite.” The Palme d’Or winner at that year’s Cannes Film Festival not only went on to win the Oscar for Best International Film but a slew of other awards, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture becoming the first international film ever to win the Academy’s top prize. There’s no reason to directly equivocate this success as having any bearing on how “Decision To Leave” will perform. A Park Chan-wook film is a different kind of beast altogether compared to a Bong Joon-ho film, and a very different type of campaign will need to be mounted for it by MUBI than what NEON accomplished in 2019. Having said that, recent trends show that South Korean cinema has become increasingly recognized by the Academy in a brief span of time.

And there are many reasons to believe that 2016’s “The Handmaiden,” had it been submitted over the well-received but not as universally acclaimed “The Age of Shadows,” would have had a high chance of getting nominated back then given its international popularity among the critics, as well as its eventual BAFTA win for Foreign Language Film. Moreover, MUBI has proven to be a solid campaigner in this category, doing a pretty good job last year of building enough attention through screenings and promotion for the underrated “Great Freedom” (Austria) to get onto the final shortlists.

Then there is the question of Best Picture. With a guaranteed ten-film lineup like last year and an awards season where many are predicting an eclectic selection of more ‘traditional’ Academy fare and more ‘unconventional’ films, with the right kind of surge, “Decision To Leave” could make its mark here. One could argue that romantic mysteries or neo-noir haven’t exactly been the Academy’s cup of tea in recent years; it’s been a long time since the likes of Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” and the closest thing for a precedent for neo-noir in recent years are hypotheticals like David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (which got Best Cinematography, Sound and Actress nominations and won Best Film Editing) making it into a Best Picture lineup of ten. On the other hand, the eventual ‘international film’ Best Picture nominee “Drive My Car” didn’t have the strongest precedent for getting in. Even when Ryusuke Hamaguchi was making his case for a Best Director nomination, many did not look favorably upon the Best Picture chances of a quiet ruminative three-hour-long character study of a grieving theatre director. It ended up getting in over what would seem like more conventional Academy fare, like “Tick, Tick…BOOM!” and “Being The Ricardos.” Clearly, there is either a growing international contingent or a growing push for both non-English language films and more idiosyncratic auteur films in this category. There’s no guarantee that “Decision To Leave” will be the “Drive My Car” equivalent this year in terms of recreating that passionate critics’ campaign to get Best Picture consideration, but what I’m saying is that I think there’s a chance.

The category where I actually have the most (and perhaps irrational) confidence in “Decision To Leave” getting the plaudits it deserves is Best Director. The director’s branch has been notable for rejecting any notions of fixed precursors and expectations, going out of their way to nominate auteurs with specific visions: see Paweł Pawlikowski (who, like Park, won Best Director at Cannes) getting a nomination for “Cold War” over the more expected name of Bradley Cooper for “A Star Is Born.” Pawlikowski’s nomination is also an example of the directors’ branch historically being the most internationally inclined of the above-the-line categories. In recent years there has been a particularly evident trend, with Pawlikowski being nominated alongside eventual winner Alfonso Cuaron for “Roma“; Bong Joon-ho being nominated and winning for “Parasite“; and in the subsequent two years, Thomas Vinterberg and Ryusuke Hamaguchi getting nominations for “Another Round” and “Drive My Car.” Even when a film isn’t a frontrunner like “Parasite” or “Roma,” the likes of Pawlikowski, Vinterberg, and Hamaguchi getting in shows there is often a push for a Best Director nomination from a non-English language film, solidifying a very real precedent for an ‘international slot’ in the category. 

In many ways, Park fits the bill perfectly. He has the prestige label of not just his Cannes win but also simply being one of the universally acknowledged greatest directors of our era. Many in the industry have been singing his praises over the years – and for “Decision To Leave,” we already have had the likes of Guillermo del Toro expressing his admiration with great passion. The stylish, sheer technical, and artistic achievement of his craft will be catnip for many of them. Plus, Park has been doing the rounds at festivals stateside to rousing applause and reception at each of them, which always helps. 

And while we’re at it, let’s also consider its chances for Best Original Screenplay for Park and longtime collaborator Jeong Seo-kyeong. Park and Jeong’s working relationship goes back to “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” which also signified a turning point in Park’s films where the female protagonists became increasingly pivotal figures. “Decision To Leave” and Tang Wei’s Seo-rae is another one of these, in a screenplay that weaves the mystery, dark humor, and subtext in its peculiar, unraveling dynamic between the two protagonists. The Best Original Screenplay category is already looking to be extremely competitive. Still, it would be an extremely worthy choice, as it is an essential foundation onto which Park grafts his directorial achievement. 

The acting categories are where things start to get tricky. The Academy’s historical bias against Asian actors, even in films that do well with them (see: zero acting nominations for “The Last Emperor,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Parasite“), is a recurring issue, with brief spurts of progress before regression to the norm. There’s been some change in recent years, but it remains an uphill climb for an actor even to be considered for an Oscar, especially if it is in a non-American production. Take, for example, Asian American actor Steven Yeun not getting a nom for his terrifying, critically beloved work in “Burning,” and having to wait until his excellent performance in the A24 distributed “Minari” (which also scooped up a Supporting Actress Oscar win for Korean veteran Youn Yuh-jung). Speaking of A24, there is hope for them going some ways to help further rectify this inequality with multiple Asian acting contenders, from the “Everything Everywhere All At Once” ensemble to Hong Chau in “The Whale.” Song Kang-ho, who won the Cannes Best Actor prize for his poignant and wonderful turn in “Broker,” is another name who NEON could potentially get into the race.

The increased stateside awards attention being given to Asian actors this year (see also “Squid Game” and its multiple acting nominations and win for Lee Jung-jae at the Emmys) gives me a bit more faith in “Decision To Leave” and its campaign for its actors. However, there are certainly hurdles to overcome. For Best Actor, Park Hae-il plays the detective who comes under the spell of the ‘femme fatale.’ Suppose we’re talking “Double Indemnity’ terms. In that case, he’s the Fred MacMurray to Tang’s Barbara Stanwyck, which, if you know your Oscars history, means a hurdle for awards chances – the ‘mark’ can often be (wrongly) seen as the less challenging role that gets overlooked. In the ideal scenario that “Decision To Leave” becomes a hit with the Academy, though it would be remiss not to embrace Park’s performance, it wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened in the Lead Actor category. Despite some prominent critics’ awards wins, Hidetoshi Nishijima was overlooked for his wonderfully subtle work in “Drive My Car.” A film that nabbed above-the-line nominations in directing and screenplay, but the performance that grounds its quiet emotional core was ignored. What’s in Park Hae-il’s favor, then? I’ll be honest; I’m hopedicting he gets in because he’s brilliant, giving a more emotional and potent performance than you might expect from a cursory glance at the plot. Call me an idealistic fool (like Hae-jun himself).

Meanwhile, for Best Actress, we have Tang Wei in the role of the aforementioned ‘femme fatale,’ though the way the film plays out isn’t anywhere as simple as just that. In a way, this performance reminds me of Kodi Smit-McPhee in last year’s “The Power Of The Dog“: a cryptic, mysterious turn that pays off beautifully with the last act revelation that puts the entire performance in perspective. It’s a rich and mesmerizing performance that I feel will grow with repeat viewings. The Best Actress category already seems highly competitive this year, with many beloved veteran actresses giving acclaimed performances and some newcomers getting outstanding notices. I do feel, though, that Tang’s chances are greater than some might expect. Her film is buzzing along at the right time in a juicy role, and she already has a reputation as a fantastic actress with her breakthrough in “Lust, Caution” (for which she should have been nominated for). Most importantly, Tang’s role is just the right kind of powerhouse performance that is also off-kilter and unconventional enough to present itself to critics as a particularly cool and offbeat choice to get behind – I could see her scooping up some wins across the awards circuit to become a surprise announcement on nominations day.

It’s not just the above-the-line categories we should be considering “Decision To Leave” in. Best Cinematography is somewhere else where the film is very much in play, a branch that nominated several non-English language films over the past decade (“The Grandmaster,” “Ida,” “Cold War,” “Never Look Away,” etc.). Even without regular collaborator Chung Chung-hoon by his side, Park’s visual style is brilliantly amplified by another very talented cinematographer in Kim Ji-yong (“A Bittersweet Life” & “The Age of Shadows”). Kim’s effort here is worthy of all the recognition it can get: a fascinating glossy flair to the procedural and interrogation scenes, some dynamite camera movements in the chase sequences, atmospheric shots capturing the detective’s troubling voyeurism, and most of all, the brilliant beach finale. It’s vibrant work that should be recognized alongside Best Film Editing. Park and editor Kim Sang-bum put that extensive post-production time to great use, as “Decision To Leave” features some of the best editing in any Park film, which is really saying something. It is relentless, pulling just about everything from the playbook regarding cuts and transitions and keeping such alluring feverish pacing to its strange tale. I’m just going to say it will be a travesty if it’s not even considered. Best Production Design should also be considered, where Ryu Seong-hie (who also designed the astonishingly beautiful sets of “The Handmaiden“) delivers more understated but excellent work here, with Seo-rae’s apartment in particular worth the accolades it gets. Hopefully, there will also be some focus on Best Original Score for the consistently excellent work of Jo Yeong-wook: swooningly hypnotic, adding so much to the visual high points of the film (and speaking of which, Jung Jae-il, whose masterful score for “Parasite” was blanked out of its awards run, also deserves recognition for his stunning, heartfelt work in “Broker“). 

As always, with such early predictions and analysis, much conjecture and assumptions are being made by yours truly with regards to “Decision To Leave” and its awards prospects. ‘Too early to tell!’ you might say, and you’d be right. And on that note, though I’ve written a lot here, we can also just let the film speak for itself, with the way it’s been hitting the sweet spot for all kinds of festival audiences, from the artsy highbrow crowds but also finding appeal as a crowd-pleasing affair with its fun offbeat approach. I could go on all day about giving Park Chan-wook his flowers, but really, all that needs to be said is he made another brilliant film, and that’s that. Now, let’s see how the general public and the Academy respond as the film continues its rollout this weekend.

Decision To Leave” opens in US cinemas on October 14th and in UK cinemas on October 21st. Do you think it will receive any Oscar nominations? Have you seen the film yet? If so, what did you think? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account and check out the Next Best Picture team’s latest Oscar predictions here.

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