“You looked so closely,” Song Seo-rae says to detective Hae Joon when asked about the whereabouts of her blue-green dress. He backs down, wandering off aimlessly instead of investigating the feelings that are sewn into Seo-rae’s short but pointed response.
The mystery of romance itself is at the heart of Decision to Leave, Park Chan-Wook’s latest film about an insomniac detective (Park Hae-Il) that becomes transfixed on a victim’s wife (Tang Wei) as he investigates her potential involvement in the crime. Decision to Leave is an intimate affair, where the greatest reveals come not from tangible evidence of an unsolved murder, but from the character’s innermost feelings verbalized and acted upon. The spirited energy of the movie was to be expected by Park, a director who is no stranger to shock value with films like Oldboy. I hadn’t anticipated that the most tremendous shock would come from how romantic the film was.
Hae Joon and Seo-rae’s collision course begins at the foot of a mountain: Seo-rae’s husband, a seasoned mountaineer, is found dead at the base of the cliff. What begins as a suicide investigation soon gives way to foul play, as Hae Joon turns his sights to the unperturbed Seo-rae. Hae Joon is a distracted man: his work is a distraction from his worsening insomnia, an alluring suspect disrupts his detective ability, and that same woman diverts his attention from his domestic life. His relationship with his wife, Jung-An (Lee Jung-hyun), is more procedural than his line of work – he visits her once a week, and intercourse is a scheduled routine. He is shattered, well before he believes himself to be.
Seo-rae is a quiet force. Unlike characters of her ilk in noir films, she’s a femme fatale that isn’t conniving or cunning. Her tenderness is disarming but never malicious. She is perhaps best described by the film’s recurring motifs of the mountain and the sea: she’s a grounding presence and a symbol of freedom all at once. Hae Joon stands at the precipice; we can easily understand why Hae Joon would take to Seo-rae. We are less certain of her motivations. It’s these poetic touches that drew me into the film; for every energetic scene, there’s a humble moment for consideration.
Park Chan-Wook’s hyper-stylized and often brutal filmography gave me pause for concern as I experienced Decision to Leave. I dreaded the thought that the romance between Seo-Rae and Hae Joon would be undercut by a dramatic turn meant solely to shock and provoke. I was happy to be proven otherwise. I found myself moved by the depth of the conversation between the two; every piece of dialogue plays out like a game of cat and mouse between the forbidden lovers. Be that as it may, there’s no shortage of Park’s auteur flourishes.
The cinematography and editing are dynamic – skillfully and thoughtfully rendered in a way that allows scenes to bleed into each other in a dramatic fashion. Scenes of Hae Joon questioning a bedridden woman are nestled in between brilliant chase sequences that lead us from rooftop to rooftop. There are moments of extreme tension on a cliff’s edge that occur within seconds of tender conversation. The film is very fluid but never rushed, offering plenty of time to sit with the characters and their developing feelings.
With never a moment wasted nor a moment to linger, Decision to Leave almost demands a second watch to appreciate the technical prowess on display. Early in the film, Hae Joon interrogates Seo-rae at the police station. The camera pans in and out of focus between the two leads and their mirrored reflection directly behind them. The conversation swings from curt questioning to a flirtatious meal over sushi, and the leads are captivating in their subtle chemistry. It was only after the scene ended that I considered that the camera wasn’t in the shot, a seemingly impossible feat. If it’s not a film that necessitates a second watch, then its behind-the-scenes footage is probably mandatory viewing.
Aside from the dynamism of the film, there’s also Park’s idiosyncratic sense of humor that pervades the film. Whether it’s the detectives retracing the fall pattern of the victim that lay in front of them, or hoisting themselves up a mountainside, Park and cowriter Jeong Seo-Kyeong levy humor to break up the melodrama of the film. I found myself laughing the most at the moments of karmic tragedy as the characters are punished for their failing morality. The film is no slacker when it comes to these scenes either – an incident involving a snapping turtle is just as well shot as the knife fight that preceded it.
Hae Joon and Seo Rae’s emotional tug of war comes to a poignant yet devastating conclusion. It’s a stark reminder that for all of the beautiful cinematography, editing skill, and spectacle, the true beauty of Decision to Leave comes from the intertwined and complicated lives of the two leads. There’s motivation to the secrets and mysteries of Decision to Leave, and it’s not a simple matter of hiding one’s nefarious goals. It’s to obfuscate the complex feelings we cannot readily admit nor reconcile.
Decision to Leave is now streaming on MUBI
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