In Decision to Leave, Park Chan-wook‘s latest film, Hae-Joon, an insomniac cop, obsessed with his job, perfectionist and meticulous in the kitchen, resigned to sexual abstinence and a long-distance marriage, while working in Busan, is faced with solving the mystery of an apparent accidental death. The immediate consequence will be an irreversible turnaround in his life. Starring Park Hae-il and the iconic Tang Wei (Lust, Caution, Ang Lee, 2007), Decision to Leave is a film of textures, in which the atmosphere created by cinematographer Kim Ji-yong is enveloping, at times the rooms function as a box, a container or a small camera stage, forcing us to be aware of the physical limits—the ceiling and wall— that confine the characters and their conversations.
Whether it is in the careful interior setting —as we are accustomed to from the Korean director— and whose aesthetics are very significant, here for example, what the wallpaper suggests, or in grey, blue, misty landscapes and camera movements that make us believe we have seen what is not shown, this thriller keeps us alert every second, even seducing us at times, despite the fact that the pace can make us lose our footing. In Decision to Leave, the director also makes use of mobile phone messages as a narrative element, at times annoying, as disruptors of an atmosphere closer to fascination than to technology, a decision that seems to be deliberate, as in the last part the policeman stops using his iWatch, in a way that is totally coherent with his new life.
Following point by point the rules of crime with many shades of doubt, and of the erotic thriller, Park Chan-wook —winner of a Palme d’Or with Old Boy (2004) and the Jury Prize in 2009 with Thirst— shows the nooks and crannies of the plot, dosing the information and drawing a portrait of the widow, investigated and observed, that will grow bigger and more polished at the same time as it adds more questions to the story. The interrogation scenes are anthological, conveying from the very first minute the impact and consequences for the investigation of the deep impression the femme fatale makes on the policeman. Seo-rae’s character is carefully written and her seductiveness, somewhere between innocence and perversity, is fresh enough to sustain the film and lend verisimilitude.
Just when we are certain of her innocence in her husband’s death, a new element reopens the mystery, with the same cadence as the investigator becomes more deeply entangled in the fascination of a multi-faceted woman. The screenplay, co-written with regular collaborator Jeong Seo-kyeong (The Maiden), weaves the investigation with a romance as deep as it is fatalistic, playing on several aspects of duplicity and duality: she has two husbands, he oscillates between the suspect and his wife, the widow is Chinese but also Korean, innocence and guilt, adultery and fidelity.
The humble elderly caretaker, with a perfect alibi, plays mercilessly with an increasingly dedicated investigator, who at the same time distances himself from his wife, with no doubt leaving him, in spite of himself. Seo-rae’s (Tang Wei) story makes her a victim, when we learn that she came from China to Korea illegally, and that she was naturalized because her grandfather was a decorated soldier in the war against Japan. Hae-Joon, for his part, falls for the game of seduction, risking his own career, becoming in turn the victim of a manipulation whose cards are never laid bare.
Decision to Leave has been shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, as well as the Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globes, and is also up for four BAFTA awards: Best Director, Original Screenplay, Editing and Foreign Film.
Article updated in January 2023.