Decision to Leave Stirs the Heart
When Park Chan-wook makes a mystery picture, it’s best you rid your brain of any expectations. The director of The Handmaiden and Oldboy treats genre scaffolding less like an edifice for construction and more like the city sidewalk it towers over – a vessel to bounce human bodies and urges and needs off each other in a quixotic effort to grasp the intangible connections weaving us all together. His latest film may not reach the “holy shit that’s a masterpiece” instant reaction levels of some of his prior efforts, but it isn’t meant to either. Decision to Leave is an elliptical journey through the hearts and heads of two wayward souls – designed to slither around inside its audiences for weeks and months after the credits roll.
Narratively, Decision to Leave comes closest to a classic film noir. Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) may be the youngest inspector in Busan, but he’s already a world-weary insomniac, spending nights awake and away from his wife, who works and lives in the bucolic Mountain town of Ipo, about three hours outside the city. Hae-joon needs crime; crime needs him. And yet when the death of a 60-year-old climber brings him to the doorstep of the man’s much younger wife, Seo-rae (an electric Tang Wei), Hae-joon’s profession suddenly takes a backseat – for the detective, for the director, and for the audience.
We aren’t met to be confused by what’s going on or who committed the crime, and in fact, Park has little interest in the type of twists you might expect in a murder mystery. The narrative turns are still there – they’re just not the object of his fascination. Instead he wields a fiercely elliptical brush, painting with a restrained romantic expressionism that belies his explicit past efforts. In short, Park knows what is sexy. The application of moisturizer or lip balm; voyeurism by way of surveillance; a touch of hands; the silence of a shared sushi meal between suspect and investigator. These moments are the focus of his lens, and the dribble of details about the crime at-hand come through the vehicle of the strange, alluring romance between Hae-joon and Seo-rae. It’s telling that the crime shifts halfway through; the relationship doesn’t.
Visually, Decision to Leave is a revelation. At first, the stylings feel like the flexes of a storyteller showing off, hoping to spice up sequences that don’t lend themselves to cinematic moments. But slowly, Park’s storytelling filmic style – and especially his collaboration with cinematographer Kim Ji-young and editor Kim Sang-bum – unfurls itself as a masterstroke of forced emotional perspective. We do not see what Hae-joon sees through the binoculars; we see what he imagines in his ritual daydreams. We don’t witness his sights but his wants, his desires. And for the most part, these are externalized on-screen not encased in a Brechtian remove – as in a flashback or a dream sequence – but as firm experience, albeit a with a slight touch of magical realism. This is the romantic version of the truth that we all impose on our own drab circumstances. And as the film’s second half takes on a more physical beauty – the shift from bland interiors to breathtaking mountain and beach vistas – it makes us wonder how deep we have been led into Hae-joon’s head.
In this sense, the obvious comparison is to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Decision to Leave evokes the master of suspense not just in how it conjures a man obsessed with the fleeting image of a woman, but also in how the director invites us to join him in jumping down the rabbit hole after his character with reckless abandon. Cho Young-wuk supplements this journey with perhaps my favorite score of the year, a swirling, entrancing mix of melancholy and sensuality that brings us deeper into this world. Tang Wei delivers a brilliant, translucent, amphibious performance. Seo-rae is naturally ambivalent, but Wei allows us to see the barest of glimpses inside her head and her heart, enough to draw us in without leading us to any clear conclusion. And to return to Kim Ji-yon’s lens – a first-time collaborator of Park’s – it captures the natural beauty of South Korea with a sort of desperate yearning, as if like Hae-joon, it’s almost a bit too painful to stare at the object of his desire.
Decision to Leave is a departure and an evolution for Park Chan-wook, but it also fits snugly within his oeuvre. And where past efforts like Oldboy aim to shock the head with their endings, Decision seeks to stir the heart. If you open yours, it will find its way inside.