Cannes-award-winning unforgettable Decision to Leave directed with pyrotechnical flair by Park Chan-wook is a haunting Korean neo-noir and yet so much more.
Play Misty for Meby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Decision to Leave deservedly won Best Director for Park Chan-wook at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022. It has been so acclaimed by public and critics that it is being re-released in the UK on 13 February 2023.
It’s the work of a master, made with the characteristic directorial flair and élan that we have seen in Oldboy and The Handmaiden. It moves seamlessly between noirish reality and scenes of impossible fantasy and imagination. But it is tonally very different from Park’s previous work.
Briefly, the bones of the story are that a married detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), investigating the death of an amateur climber, begins to suspect that the man’s much younger, beautiful Chinese widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei) knows more about the assumed accident than she is divulging. She continues her work as a home carer to elderly women and she seems strangely unconcerned at her husband’s sudden death. Hae-jun falls in love with Seo-rae and as a result finds himself trapped in an obsessive web of deception and desire that could compromise his career. Then their story becomes even more complicated as secrets emerge organically.
Decision to Leave is intensely involving as we are drawn in to follow how the narrative of this investigation and love story unravel. Hae-jun’s growing feelings are shown in the expensive sushi he orders (to the dismay of his subordinates) while interrogating Seo-rae and the tenderness with which he puts toothpaste on her toothbrush while she’s held in custody.
But Decision to Leave is deeply imbued with an intriguing and deliberately misleading sense of duality throughout. The film itself unfolds in two locations and what are almost two parts and times as a result. The obsession of the central characters is echoed in the admission by the criminal that Hae-jun pursues.
Like The Handmaiden, the viewpoint subtly changes from one character to another, in Decision to Leave moving from the detective to the widow for the final third of the film.
Duality is there in the elemental contrast between the sea and mountains and the difference between the people who prefer one or the other. The design of the wallpaper in Seo-rae’s home could be either sea or mountain, depending on the viewpoint. Duality is also shown in the ambiguous actions of the film’s main characters. Seo-rae is impossible to read when she’s under investigation.
Duality is apparent in many details that Park shows us through unexpected camera angles – like the blue/green fentanyl capsules and the dress Seo-rae wears that to observers is both blue and green. And the film’s colour palette throughout is a changeable blue/green that’s murky, like the light that filters through into the depths of the sea. Red seeps in only at significant moments, associated with pomegranates or blood and the smell of blood.
And the ever-present soundtrack by Park’s longtime collaborator Cho Young-wuk reinforces the disconcerting, disturbing, brooding atmosphere. Depending on the nature of the scene, it ranges from textured menacing quasi-Asian sounds as surveillance unfolds to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony as a background to what we assume are tragic lovers. Their feelings for each other it appears are not concurrent and at times the framing shows their separateness when they are together.
Most striking about the music is the repeated use of a seductive old Korean song ‘Mist’, sung dreamily by Jung Hoon Hee. It was released in 1967 as the theme song for the film of the same name, Mist. It’s not only significant to the plot but it also reinforces the theme of confusion and deception, characterised by the fog in the seaside region where the action takes place, and also as the obsession that manifests itself as mist in people’s minds, something which confuses and obscures.
New technology is crucial to the plot – not just mobile phones and texts, but also Apple watch’s use in voice recordings and translation apps. They drive the plot, the investigation and the denouement.
Decision to Leave means what? Leave a place, a marriage, a life? It is a disconcerting, excitingly directed, beautifully acted film that goes beyond its plot and emotional arc, and it’s hard to do it justice in a review. Decision to Leave is an unforgettable must-see. What a searing ending! Submerge yourself in it. It will exceed your expectations.
Decision to Leave won Best Director for Park Chan-wook at the Cannes Film Festival 2022 and is released on 21 October 2022 in cinemas in the UK and on Mubi later in the year. It is re-released on 13 February 2023 in the UK.