Director: Park Chan-wook
Stars: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Go Kyung-pyo
In Park Chan-wook’s nimble neo-noir Decision to Leave sensibilities of old and new co-mingle. An open, evident love letter to Hitchcock – specifically Vertigo – as well as the Golden Age crime yarns of Hollywood’s 1940s, the tale weaves together classic staples (the obsessed cop, the femme fatale) with decidedly modernist elements (our ongoing obsession with recording/documenting out lives),. Meanwhile, in the meat of the story, Chan-wook longs for the halcyon days of screen romances dosed with the heady potential for tragedy and betrayal.
It’s a film that deals in doubles, reflections and counterweights. For every mountain there’s a hole in the ground. For every rock there’s an ocean. As it shimmies craftily in front of you, one senses Park behind the camera. Perpetually – carefully – balancing the scales.
Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is a somewhat happily married man, an insomniac, and a detective. His latest case – a middle-aged mountain climber who has fallen to his death – seems open and shut. An accident or maybe a suicide. But when Hae-jun meets the widow, Chinese immigrant Seo-rae (Tang Wei), he becomes beguiled by her. As much for her looks as her icy detachment from grief. Tailing her as a potential suspect, Hae-jun’s obsession only grows, and his suspicion fuels ours. She has a water-tight alibi, an answer for everything. But she’s also a victim of domestic abuse. A motive is there…
While broadly playing in a more mannered and classical register when compared to his famed outings like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, Park consistently finds ways to show off his trademark visual dexterity. Feeding into the blurring worlds of waking and sleeping, Park has his actors share scenes when their characters aren’t in physical proximity. If Seo-rae is imagining Hae-jun, she’ll be there beside him; if he is surveilling her, he’s also in the room with her. While this can occasional disorientate – especially considering the film’s relentless pace – it more than excuses itself. The sense of predestined, uncontrollable connection between them is palpable. A bond that transcends the tale’s often disparate spaces.
As intimated, Decision to Leave is stuffed with details, making it feel apiece with Park’s last feature, The Handmaiden, in spite of their vastly differing worlds. Ensure you’re well watered before wandering into a screening, as its impossible to discern a convenient moment for distraction. This is one that requests constant attention lest something vital flash by unnoticed. As is often the case with this filmmaker, the devil is in the details.
There’s a prevalence here of miscommunication, from the language barrier that separates Hae-jun and Seo-rae to the technology that frequently comes between them. Decision to Leave navigates the pitfalls of cell phones and our modern era of constant contact. So often these elements are screenwriting nightmares. Here though (and, one supposes, in the source material from which it is adapted), they become vital tools to move the plot machinations forward. To severe, separate, obfuscate and reconnect. Without the need to get bogged down in the taciturn time capsuling of social media, Park manages to acknowledge our global preoccupation while still rendering something that’s unlikely to date poorly. His film still manages to feel – for the moment at least – classic.
If Decision to Leave sounds and seems less prone to visual gymnastics, that isn’t true in the telling. Here, chiefly, Park gets particularly creative in his myriad transitions. As with the aforementioned motif of having his actors share an illogical space, many compositions are designed around the flexibility of the surrounding sets to transport us from one site to another. It adds a measure of genuine theatre to the experience. Park’s craftmanship – and the craftmanship of his crew – mean that these transitions appear seamless, but they announce themselves to the viewer nonetheless. He’s still a showman at heart.
Flashy (and even distracting) as these techniques may be, they abut the sense of longing for times past. Seo-rae compliments Hae-jun’s demeanor, explaining in her haphazard Korean that she admires his aura of dignity. This, along with his pride and integrity, become badges of valor pinned to Hae-jun that Seo-rae piecemeal starts to remove. Her potential as a murderess is one thing that links Decision to Leave to the ’40s film noirs of old; her ability to deliberately undo the man she desires enhances the connection further. So too his inability to resist walking in her shadow. This relationship of sabotage connects to the BDSM kink of The Handmaiden. Love, for Park, so often seems to reveal itself in sacrifice and destruction.
But this isn’t a ’40s film. It is very consciously a present day one. What, then, does this tell us about the relationships between men and women in 21st century Korea? Has anything changed? Or are the characters just as enamoured with notions of romance as Park? Has nostalgia doomed them? Has the heart?
In keeping with the sense of balance and counterweight, Decision to Leave quite neatly bisects, and a 13 month time jump mid-film rearranges the circumstances and baggage for Park’s fateful pair. So too the colourful supporting players that orbit Hae-jun and Seo-rae. It is questionable whether Park truly keeps the scales even here. The second half is ever-so slightly too contrived and elaborate. The story teeters on chance and coincidence. Still, Decision to Leave resolutely sticks the landing. It’s final moves offer some starkly iconic visuals. It’s lingering final shots – among the film’s very best – offering a summation of everything we’ve been tracking the entire time.