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Thrilling crime films from Argentina and South Korea are marvels of versatility


This is FRESH AIR. It's award season. And our critic-at-large, John Powers, looks at two entries for the best international feature Oscar. They are "Argentina, 1985," which is currently showing on Amazon Prime, and "Decision To Leave" from South Korea, which is still rolling out in theaters and is available on the Mubi app. John says these two excellent films represent almost opposite ends of what you can do with movies about crime.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Like hemp, potatoes and LeBron James, crime stories are marvels of versatility. They can be used to do scads of things, from creating baffling puzzles to taking us inside diverse cultures to offering metaphysical speculations on the nature of truth. This plasticity is on display in two excellent and wildly different new films - one a sturdy social drama from Argentina, the other a delirious psychological thriller from South Korea.

Crimes don't come much bigger than the ones in "Argentina, 1985," a true-life portrait of a country struggling to reckon with its past - in this case, the military junta that ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983, leaving behind a legacy of rape, torture and murder in its so-called dirty war against the left. Filmmaker Santiago Mitre shows how, in 1985, a team of lawyers risks everything to prosecute the coup's leaders for crimes against humanity. Argentine megastar Ricardo Darin gives a slyly gripping performance as Julio Cesar Strassera, an honorable, if unflashy, state's attorney who's charged with prosecuting the military leaders in criminal court.

Working with a team of young, inexperienced lawyers - the old pros are either fearful or fascists - they seek evidence proving two things, that the junta's brutality wasn't necessary to the battle against subversion and that its abuses weren't merely the handiwork of overzealous underlings; the generals sanctioned them. Even as Strassera and company do this, they face pressure from the military's supporters, who threaten to kill them and their families.

To win the trial, Strassera needs to be painstaking, not flamboyant. Mitre tells his story in much the same spirit. Although filled with the stuff of political thrillers - sinister phone calls, nasty folks scuttling in the shadows, the odd car bomb - "Argentina, 1985" rarely ratchets up the melodrama. Working in a largely matter-of-fact style that recalls the Oscar-winning "Spotlight," Mitre shows Strassera laying out the junta's violence and gratuitous cruelty, even to babies. This is what happens, the film says, when leaders don't respect the law and empower thugs to deal with anyone who objects. While this may sound dark, "Argentina, 1985" is actually hopeful and inspiring. It suggests that even in a ferociously divided country, the pursuit of the truth - and, you know, the facts - can bend the arc of the universe toward justice.

The universe is more unhinged in "Decision To Leave," a moody, thrillingly well-made murder story by Park Chan-wook, who did the exquisite potboiler "The Handmaiden" and the terrific TV adaptation of "The Little Drummer Girl." Although it starts out like your basic noir-ish cop story, it slowly becomes something stranger, funnier and more mysterious. It's as dreamy as "Argentina, 1985" is clear-sighted.

The mystery begins with a hiker's corpse found at the bottom of a cliff. Insomniac detective Hae-joon - niftily played by Park Hae-il - wonders if there's foul play, especially when he meets the dead man's wife, Seo-rae, played by Tang Wei. Seeming at once tremulous and steely, Seo-rae doesn't exactly appear broken up by her husband's death. Yet even as the married Hae-joon is suspicious of this enigmatic woman, the bottled-up cop is also attracted to her. In a series of niftily drawn scenes, he begins trailing her, becoming ever more obsessed with both her and with the excitement of detective work.

Of course, when you meet a femme in this kind of story, she's usually fatale, and another man does wind up dead. I won't spoil things by saying more about the unpredictable plot, which is as hard to pin down as a bead of mercury. Shot through with swooning romanticism and no small amount of tragic doom, it's closer in spirit to Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant tale of obsession, "Vertigo," than to any routine detective story.

Now, I've heard that some viewers find the story's elusiveness frustrating, and frankly, I can't explain everything in it, yet "Decision To Leave" is worth racing out to see for its filmmaking verve alone. Not only does it boast first-rate performances - Tang is magnificent - but Park is one of the world's greatest directors. Every shot crackles with snap and originality.

If "Argentina, 1985" is about carrying the truth across the finish line to achieve justice, "Decision To Leave" is like getting lost in the mist, as a song in the film keeps repeating. The approach you prefer is up to you. I'm partial to the latter. But it's no crime to enjoy both.

BRIGER: John Powers reviewed "Argentina, 1985" and "Decision To Leave."

The midterm election's less than a week away. On tomorrow's show, we talk with journalist Alexandra Berzon of The New York Times. She's been covering how right-wing activists who spread false claims of widespread election fraud are now mounting an aggressive effort to monitor voting in the midterms. I hope you can join us.


BRIGER: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with help from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Sam Briger.


John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.