People who are familiar with Park Chan-wook’s prior work (Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, and The Handmaiden) should not expect a similarly twisted plot that he has come to be known for. While the look and feel of the film is familiar to the noir crime thrillers of his other movies, at its heart, Decision to Leave is a love story.
Hae-jun is a young inspector in Busan. Kept awake by his unsolved cases, he suffers from chronic insomnia. His wife is a nuclear power plant worker who lives and works in the small coastal village of Ipo. He sees her on the weekends where he plays that he is a happily married husband, but doesn’t deflect her accusations that he loves the thrill and grisly nature of his work more than he loves their marriage. This accusation is not so much as put to the test as it is confirmed when Hae-jun is brought in for a new case: a man who has died under suspicious circumstances while mountain climbing.
The man’s only surviving family is his widow, Seo-rae, a Chinese woman of mysterious origins, whose magnetism Hae-jun immediately finds himself drawn to. When she comes in to identify the body of the man, she shows evidence of having been harmed, and Hae-jun’s partner takes note that she doesn’t seem particularly shocked by her husband’s death. Hae-jun responds candidly that his wife would probably feel the same way—”She would say, ‘I knew it. That’s why I didn’t want to marry a cop.” Hae-jun is another type of thrill seeker who could at any moment wind up dead, to no one’s surprise.
While it’s possible that the man’s fall could have been the result of an accident, Hae-jun can’t shake the feeling that there’s something more underneath the surface. Or perhaps the real reason is that he is too taken in by Seo-rae after an all-too-intimate interrogation.
Either way, Seo-rae is their only suspect. Hae-jun begins a classic stake out, watching her through the window while she is at work as a caregiver for an elderly woman. He surveils her while she is alone in her apartment watching dramas into the night. At times, his watching is so intent and so voyeuristic that the film becomes surreal, projecting him into the scene as he imagines himself holding an ash tray under her cigarette as she dozes of on the couch.
In Decision to Leave there is lots of gazing and being gazed at. Using reflections or cameras, Park Chan-wook cleverly sets up shots where the two are talking, and the audience is privy to the reactions and facial expressions of both characters at the same time. Hae-jun is not the only voyeur, as Seo-rae also by happenstance ends up watching him fight another man at the tail end of a chase and looks on, full of interest, from her car window. To some extent she knows she is being watched, and so she allows herself to stake him out too.
While much of the film takes place in the dark, colors also play a strong role. Seo-rae is defined by a deep blue-green color. Sometimes it’s a color she wears (characters can’t agree on whether the color is blue or green), sometimes it is a striking wallpaper, which she stands in front of like a portrait, and sometimes it is the misty ocean, which is ever present, whether Hae-jun finds himself in Busan or in Ipo.
Park Hae-il, who plays Hae-jun, is no stranger to the crime and mystery genre, as he has acted in a number of thrillers and won awards for his performances in films like Bong Joon-ho’s major monster movie, The Host. However, as an experienced actor, he also brings a tenderness to this role, which makes him engaging to watch. Tang Wei, who plays Seo-rae, brings charisma and vulnerability to her performance. Her big breakout was in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution in 2006. She has a history of learning different dialects for the roles she takes on, and has since become a celebrated actor inside and outside of China, with a number of international accolades. On top of being a splendid and mature story, and artfully shot, their performance together gives Decision to Leave a powerful allure.
Decision to Leave screens at Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill in-person only on November 16, 17 and 23, 2022 at 7pm. (PDT). 1515 – 12th Avenue. 206-329-2629 or try nwfilmforum.org.