In Busan, an insomniac detective Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), with a tendency to obsess over his cases, starts sniffing around the death of a man whose body was found at the base of a mountain he frequented often. The man’s wife, mostly stoic and occasionally giggling at her own Korean-speaking skills, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) emerges as the only likely suspect.
As Hae-jun digs deeper into the case, his increasing interactions with Seo-rae, though procedural in nature, are defined by the easy familiarity they both settle into. Park’s narrative here turns to focus on the spatial intimacy that they both quickly grow to occupy in each other’s lives. Park puts this learned domesticity at the heart of a criminal procedural in one of their initial meetings as Hae-jun and Seo-rae finish their lunch at the interrogation table and then clean up after, like a tired routine they follow every night.
They easily identify and match each other’s rhythm, and a mutual mental fascination that drives them both to make uncharacteristic choices.
Decision to Leave (Korean, Mandarin)
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Lee Jung-hyun, Park Yong-woo, Go Kyung-pyo, Yoo Seung-mok, and others
Duration: 139 minutes
Storyline: Following the trail of clues into the mysterious death of a man, detective Jang Hae-jun finds himself drawn to the prime suspect
As Hae-jun begins his routine of staking out a suspect, the camera zooms out from him watching Seo-rae through a pair of binoculars, and then zooms into her house to show Hae-jun sat next to her. Seo-rae on the other hand, also starts tailing Hae-jun at his work, as they both eventually extend their investigation of a person to an investigation of their own feelings.
Running slightly longer than Park’s early works, Decision to Leave is conversely a significantly calmer film, which does not come as a surprise if one were to look at his more recent filmography. However, this subdual treatment of human emotions does not extend to the intensity of the subject matter which always seems to fill the narrative to the brim, eventually spilling out.
Kim Ji-yong’s masterful cinematography presents a visual aid to a narrative that rides on unspoken feelings. Ji-yong shifts the perspective between the living, the dead, and those that were never alive in the first place. Hae-jun’s mask of a composed detective looms over the audience sometimes through the eyes of a dead man, and more frequently through his phone screen. A particularly interesting segment in the film — when Hae-jun interrogates Seo-rae — has been filmed with the characters shown reflected in the mirror, and the camera shifts its focus between the four entities on the screen. This also acts as a nod to the second act of the film, which mirrors the first in how it progresses, but with the inverted order of Seo-rae being the one to begin the chase.
As much as Hae-jun and Seo-rae naturally flow in sync with each other, they also clash in their more honest conversations. Seo-rae’s possible involvement in her husband’s death Hae-jun’s marriage of many years threaten their connection. Park’s preference for a physicality of human emotions finds itself pushed down further in this film which toys with the theme of communication. A Chinese emigrant in Korea, Seo-rae uses translation apps to record her voice for Hae-jun, who in turn buys himself a set of beginner’s Chinese language workbooks. Decision to Leave’s storyline hinges on many such ways in which they both try to dissect each other, without wanting to reveal too much about their own selves… much like a police interrogation.
The tension between the two extends like a taut wire that sits burdened under the weight of miscommunication, but also threatens to snap at the peak of their vulnerability. Here, Park creates a secret shared language between them. Seo-rae borrows mannerisms from Hae-jun, as he cooks while listening to her favourite song.
In a whirlpool of murder and unsolved mysteries, Park Chan-wook reinvents storytelling for a classical tale we have seen many times before on screen; star-crossed lovers whose relationship flirts against the societal norms. A shy circular tale in which Park continuously opens and closes the loops that tether Hae-jun and Seo-rae to each other — across a decade and different Korean cities — Decision to Leave pulls you into a tender cat-and-mouse game.
Decision to Leave is currently streaming on MUBI