Runtime: 138 minutes
Director: Park Chan-Wook
Writers: Park Chan-Wook and Jeong Seo-Kyeong
Starring: Tang Wei, Park Hae-Il
By Calum Cooper
Park Chan-Wook has been a titan of cinema ever since his feature, “Joint Security Area” (2000), arguably started the current pop culture wave of South Korean cinema. Alongside names like Bong Joon-Ho and Lee Chang-Dong, director Park’s works continue to demonstrate the thematic prowess and creative craftsmanship of South Korean filmmaking. His newest feature, “Decision to Leave” (2022) is a rich, mesmerising blend of genres. An intricate, expertly woven web of themes and story that leaves you on tenterhooks from beginning to end.
Hae-Jun (Park Hae-Il) is a workaholic detective based in Busan. He leads an investigation into the death of a man, who seemingly fell while climbing a mountain. His queries bring him to the man’s wife, a Chinese immigrant named Song Seo-Rae (Tang Wei). Seo-Rae quickly becomes the prime suspect as the evidence starts to mount. Yet Hae-Jun finds himself becoming fascinated by Seo-Rae, a fascination that turns to infatuation. As Seo-Rae begins to seemingly return his affections, a storm of emotions start to conflict with the facts of the murder case.
The current Korean Wave, known to scholars as Hallyu, has achieved much of its success through its use of hybridisation. Taking from cultures across the world and giving them national coats of paint, it is small wonder that South Korean pop culture has had such an international boom. Cinema has also leaned on this technique when it comes to its tropes, and especially its genres. “Decision to Leave” mixes the seemingly opposite genres of romance and mystery. It is not the first film to make such a blending, but the way director Park puts the desires of his characters against the obligations of their choices is nothing short of nail-biting. Certainty and doubt simultaneously perpetuate the picture as Hae-Jun and Seo-Rae attempt to figure out the other, or what they want from each other. These are two characters whose fates are on a collision course. They will crash one way or another.
Commanding the attention of the audience are the actors and the idiosyncratic characters they portray. Park Hae-Il takes centre-stage after prominent supporting roles in many films, including Bong Joon-Ho’s early works. Hae-Jun is a man attracted to the grit and violence of his occupation. His job is so important to him that even sleep seems arbitrary compared to the hidden answers of his cases. He’s so fixated that there is a quiet but unmistakable gap between him and his wife Jun-An (Lee Jung-Hyun), who he views as mundane. Whenever they have sex it seems more like an obligation than an expression of love. As such, the perplexing contrasts that personify Seo-Rae draw him like a moth to a flame. A woman of arresting beauty, but a hint of something dangerous lurking beneath. Park brings desperation and versatility to a role of fabricated strength, while Tang Wei steals the show with a powerhouse performance of deft cunning and obscure, even morbid, motives.
“Director Park weaves many clever motifs and symbolic imagery into his film to heighten the tension and keep up the storm of anxiety as the characters’ clashing duties and wants threaten to finally meet.”
Obscurity is a recurring sentiment laced within the very fabric of “Decision to Leave”. Hae-Jun regularly takes eye-drops for medical purposes. Their recurring usage can perhaps be read as a double metaphor for blindness and awareness. Fog is a common weather pattern experienced throughout the story, another metaphor for the circumstances or truths that Hae-Jun is either blind to or even deliberately overlooking for the sake of some morbid affection or lust. Director Park weaves many clever motifs and symbolic imagery into his film to heighten the tension and keep up the storm of anxiety as the characters’ clashing duties and wants threaten to finally meet. The slow burn but narratively invigorating way in which the mystery unravels and then reshapes the characters affected is Hitchcockian in execution.
Aesthetically, “Decision to Leave”, like the best of Hallyu’s cinematic contributions, is a playful exercise in creativity; one that complements the intricate nature of the unfolding events. Kim Sang-Bum’s editing is a masterclass in experimentation. Through dissolving transitions that cause the appearance of scenes bleeding into one another, the film maintains a suspenseful pace. Meanwhile, Kim Ji-Yong’s cinematography captivates and enhances the unquiet nature of the picture through overhead shots, intense close ups and spectacular shots of the urban landscape that could be framed on a wall. The visuals are used as weapons against the characters as memory, facts and desire all navigate around each other to the backdrop of Jo Yeong-Wook’s haunting but oddly beautiful score.
Observing the project as a whole, one can derive myriad themes from its craftsmanship. An anti-authoritarianism message can be perceived through the recklessness of Hae-Jun’s actions, as can a vengeful anti-patriarchy message from the story arc surrounding Seo-Rae. Yet the most prominent theme concerns guilt, desire, and the ways in which we can remould or even turn our backs on our moral compasses for the yearning or faintest possibility of love. Contemporary South Korean cinema has often explored the sociopolitical contradictions and messiness at the heart of the nation. Is love the cleansing palette to a morally ambiguous world, or is it something that’s born from such ambiguity? The answers are deceptive, and the film that poses these questions is as slippery and mystifying as its central players.
Park Chan-Wook has had a long career of singular films. “Decision to Leave” is an exemplary blending of genres that would likely have collapsed under a different director, but, under Park, creates something as soulful and serene as it is puzzling and gripping. Its compelling themes, thought provoking characters, and unparalleled aesthetic combine to make a film that’s unique among Park’s filmography, but also strangely fitting. A definitive highlight of this year’s London Film Festival, anyone who makes the decision to leave this film should seriously reconsider.