This neo-noir from Park Chan-wook is a masterly crafted tale of infidelity, romance, and morality.
Decision to Leave is a tantalising love story of a detective and suspect absent from the generous portion of sex provided in The Handmaiden and a crime thriller with only a grain of the violence laced throughout Oldboy.
Park hones in on the convolution of human emotion and intimacy, where tension grows between suspiciously non-grieving widow Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) and obsessive detective Chang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) as the web of lies and deceit intertwined in the murder case unravels around them. Set in Busan, amongst a striking natural backdrop of mountains and the ocean, the film dives into Hae-joon and his detective partner (Go Kyung-pyo) investigating a new case that circles the sudden death of Seo-rae’s husband, who fell off a mountaintop during his climb. Seo-rae is brought in for questioning and her calm demeanour suggests a more sinister explanation for the accident hidden beneath the peak of the case’s surface. Kim Sang-bum’s clever editing and cinematographer Kim Ji-yong’s camerawork sprouts further seeds of doubt both in the audience’s minds and Hae-joon. Sharply cutting between frames of her reflection in mirrors during interrogations and double screens teasing that there is a side to Seo-rae that the character is suppressing.
The pair seem to confuse the meaning of what it means to be partners in crime as their relationship develops. Early interview scenes at the police station blur into expensive sushi dinner takeaway dates, and taking photo evidence of the bruises on Seo-rae’s thighs trespasses into intimate territory. The framing and blocking of these scenes present more insight to the audience than the characters do about their intentions. In meticulous synchronisation and one sounding rhythm during an interrogation/dinner date, they both close the lid on their takeaway box, slide it across the table and stand up from their chair in unison. Whether this is a manifestation of ‘finish each other sentences,’ ‘we are one’ kind of true love, or a more cynical suggestion that Seo-rae consciously mirrors Hae-joon’s behaviours as a manipulation tactic leaves the viewer constantly questioning motivation. The tension throughout the films builds from this style of subtlety and ambiguity. Rather than whiplash-inducing plot twists and whodunnit-genre conventions, Park is more concerned with the thrill and mystery of a blossoming forbidden love.
The misty atmosphere is as much of a plot device as the character’s trajectory of love. The film’s first half takes place amongst the mountains, the setting of Seo-rae’s husband’s death and a place that both admit to disliking after Seo-rae tells him she prefers the ocean because “Wise people like water. Benevolent people like the mountains.” Screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung and Park’s reference to the proverb that says water moves freely and fearlessly whilst the mountains rest still and compliant encapsulates the relationship’s atomic structure. A relationship that dismisses laws of infidelity or morality as the two flow and crash together like the water. The second half of the film shifts fittingly to a backdrop of the sea where Seo-rae, wearing an ‘ocean blue’ dress and Hae-joon (the name ‘Hae’ representing the sea) are at one with their environment and pulled deeper into a current of romance.
The pair are reliant on their smartphones to translate between Chinese and Korean and to text ‘you awake?’ messages in the middle of the night like young teens. Park incorporates these digital elements into the cinematography — where in one scene, a merge of the viewer’s cinema screen parallels as Hae-joon’s phone screen as if the audience wasn’t already immersed in the story.
The film is littered with ambitious Hitchcockian dolly zooms during a moment of suspense or realisation, razor-sharp slices cutting through the screen and kinetic camera movement throughout. However, the energetic techniques slow down in scenes when the two are alone, and the closeup lingering of their facial expressions invites the audience to piece together a puzzle of emotions whilst Hae-joon tries to uncover his feelings and a crime.
Viewers expecting a stimulating experience may feel slightly underwhelmed by the absence of extremity. However, the film grips your attention with silence and an abundance of open space. If Park’s previous films are violent, crashing waves, then Decision to Leave is a quietly powerful current that pulls you into the depths of love, loneliness and regret.
Words by Alexandria Slater
This film screened as part of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, find the rest of our coverage here.
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