A skilled but unlucky detective, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), becomes obsessed with the case of man who fell to his death. Although it looks like a suicide, he believes the man’s enigmatic wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), knows more than she’s shared. The deeper in the case he gets, the more tied up he becomes with Seo-rae, and the more he comes to depend on her as his link to reality as his own wife drifts and his obsession with the mystery grows. Conversely, Seo-rae sees Hae-joon as her lone connection to the world now that her husband has passed away, a new “partner” of sorts. Thus, a messed up codependency develops where the cat-and-mouse becomes the courtship.
It’s not a terribly groundbreaking premise — in fact, most neo-noirs like this have some fucked up sexual tension in their narrative genes. But in the hands of Park Chan-wook, it certainly feels inventive and bracing. He charges the scenario with romance and bleak irony. Some of his direction is truly breathtaking — scenes and shots morph suggestively into each other in ways that make violence and love feel like two edges of the same fatalistic sword.
Park is especially fascinated with technology as a conduit of memory and connection. Characters repeatedly use phones and smart watches as tools that are interconnected to the soul and to truth: Daily step counts and phone alarms become clues and love letters.
Park Hae-il and Tang Wei are electric on screen — Tang Wei as Seo-rae, in particular, is one of the great femme fatales in recent memory, in part because she doesn’t really seem like one on the surface and only becomes one the closer she draws to detective Hae-joon. There’s an amazing recurring image in the film of Seo-rae and Hae-joon handcuffed together as Hae-joon leads Seo-rae somewhere as part of the police investigation. It’s a perfect visualization of the characters’ messy relationship.
The film’s police procedural element wraps up earlier in the story than I initially expected. There’s a whole act of film left once the initial thrust of the story gets resolved. And this is where the film follows the noir tradition of getting a little bit loopy. If the majority of the film is a gradual compression of a spring, tension and conflict building, the final act is that spring launching around the room, haywire and unpredictable. Every theme the film has laid out thus far is amplified to almost surreal heights. When a second case for Hae-joon to solve emerges, the circumstances almost feel like self-parody, which the characters openly acknowledge.
I found myself a bit thrown off from the movie’s wavelength as it leaned into some of the nitty-gritty of the cases and the clues became the film’s focus rather than the characters. The elliptical storytelling approach (perhaps enhanced by my language and cultural barrier) often left me puzzled exactly what I was supposed to take away from certain scenes, both narratively and emotionally. Put more simply, the movie’s plot is a bit convoluted. This is a great movie, but I’m not quite confident declaring just how great it is until I see it again so I can revisit all the puzzle pieces. Perhaps I will solve the puzzle with more clarity, or maybe I’ll just see that everything doesn’t quite fit together; certainly plenty of great hardboiled detective stories are constructed that way.
Messy though it occasionally is, Decision to Leave is a rich and satisfying film, both funnier and more romantic than it has any right to be, but also deeply clever on the fracturing mechanisms of memory and human connection in the modern world.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film