“What moves us most in Decision to Leave is the inscrutability of human desire, the conspiracy of circumstances, and that unknowable something that we seek in other people.”
Cinephiles of a certain ilk might balk at the proposition that a film’s “plot” is even of minor interest in the overall scheme of things. It might be deemed something the masses would delight in. That said, it undeniably takes skill and ingenuity to construct an artful, complex plot and deliver it satisfactorily to audiences. That is exactly what Park Chan-wook accomplishes with Decision to Leave. Though, consummate artist that he is, his film is replete with other offerings that highbrow audiences might take pleasure in too.
It also needs to be said that the story Park is weaving here is so elaborate that the compact runtime of 2 hours 18 minutes demands he drown you in an avalanche of information from the first moment, to pack in everything he wants to say. Some audiences will find the film exhausting for that reason and feel they need to chug through a hose to follow what’s going on. But such is the beauty of Park’s storytelling mastery that even with a single viewing, the film can be perfectly comprehensible – provided you have patience and pay attention. Hollywood rarely instructs audiences to participate in this way, but Park is loath to condescend to them and respects their intellect.
The film actually has three separate plots interweaving together – one minor B subplot and two major A plots – maybe one too many for some audiences and something that might throw them off while watching the film for the first time. Layered over these three plots is the overarching character-driven story of Korean detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) and his love for Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the Chinese woman he must investigate. Such is the tremendous economy of Park’s detail-rich storytelling that within the first 3 minutes, before the title card appears, he has already established the B plot, established the two locations where the film will take place (Busan and Ipo), established not only detective Hae-joon’s character but also that of his sidekick Soo-wan and his wife Jung-an, and keyed us into Hae-joon’s emotional state of mind at this point in his life. This is a marvel of exposition if you can even call it such.
The film’s main storyline – at least as people will understand it – begins immediately after the title card with the discovery of the corpse of Ki Do-soo, a retired immigration officer in his 60s and the husband of Tang Wei’s Seo-rae. The husband was a mountaineering enthusiast and is found dead at the foot of a mountain he loved climbing. Whether he was pushed to his death or if he jumped himself, our hero must investigate. Naturally, as in all cases of a married person dying, the spouse (Seo-rae, the decades-younger wife) is the first suspect. Only she has an ironclad alibi: at the time of the murder she was at her place of employment, serving as eldercare nurse at an old lady’s house. Hae-joon still keeps surveilling Seo-rae, because there is something mysterious and evasive about her. But more importantly, because he has fallen head-over-heels for her – in fascination, in lust, in love? He must emotionally torture himself (and her) to find out.
The above is plenty of story for one film, and with the surfeit of detail and incident Park packs in – the twists and turns and the reveals and reversals – perhaps plenty for a pair of features. It is then a considerable surprise that this storyline completely wraps itself by the 1 hour 15 minute mark and there is still over an hour of the film left to go! It is here that audiences might start thinking that the film is undesigned and meandering, but Park demonstrates his greatest courage and wit in this second act. Having resolved his first A plot, he introduces a second A plot, a new murder mystery, that will carry the film through the rest of its runtime. The film actually jumps ahead 13 months for this second A plot – in the olden times there might have been an intermission or an entr’acte between the two parts, so that audiences could process the stunning climax of the first storyline, but in Park’s charge-ahead idiom, a few seconds of respite is all you get before you are lurched forward again and onwards into the second storyline.
There is so much plot here that Hollywood would have indubitably turned this into an 8 or 10 episode prestige miniseries. Perhaps it might still do so – just as they are doing with another celebrated Korean import – Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite (2019). This is as much a reflection of Hollywood’s paucity of imagination as Park’s extreme competence that he still manages to bring in the film at 2 hours 18 minutes. The film is cut to the bone, not an ounce of fat anywhere, every shot and line of dialog contributing to the whole. Decision to Leave moves with such confidence that it is completely engrossing throughout, even on a second and third viewing, because there are mountains of details to dig through. What’s more, it is also genuinely clever, the complex characters come alive, and by the end you might even be moved by the doomy pull of the central romance.
Tang Wei (top-billed) and Park Hae-il carry the film because despite the swirling cast of supporting players and interesting performances, the film still somehow manages to feel like a two-hander. The fuse lit when they first exchange glances across the interrogation table pays off handily during the finale, based solely on the strength of their connection. Tang Wei actually nails a very tricky role, holding her cards close to her chest until the very end. Acting in Korean (her Chinese origin is a significant plot point), Tang Wei who first broke out in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (2007) finally seems to have a part again that is worthy of her talent and promise. An extraordinarily beautiful woman, she is actually styled modestly in this film, so that her performance is the focus rather than her looks.
Park Hae-il is her peer and equal, and as the audience surrogate, in thrall of this charismatic woman. He plays his age at mid-40s and very gracefully conveys a winning masculine empathy, leavened not with machismo, but with humour and pathos. He elevates the film with his conviction, commitment and inherent decency. Of special note is that he is deliberately portrayed to be in a happy and loving marriage already, with regular, satisfying sex too. It makes his interest in Tang Wei’s Seo-rae that much more fascinating.
Park’s tricksy, over-cranked direction might seem ostentatious at first blush, but reveals its strength as it allows the film to achieve its pithy runtime. All manner of inventive shots and innovations are employed by Park – a phone conversation is imagined with both the speaking parties in a single room, a scene at a night stand begins with a close-up of the bulb in the lamp – and on and on. The wonder of his achievement then is his ability to convey vast amounts of information visually – something we rarely see done well despite cinema being a visual medium first and foremost.
The production design is superb as well, though unlike the lavish interiors of The Handmaiden (2016), it is geared towards bending and structuring external spaces to fit within Park’s carefully constructed frames. The blue, mountainous wallpaper in Tang Wei’s apartment is already easily recognizable as it has been widely used in the film’s publicity. The music score, while not as memorable as in The Handmaiden, serves the film well. More impactful is Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, which is present due to a plot point in the film, also incidentally a plot point in another NYFF 22 title – Todd Field’s Tár. The film isn’t without certain shorthands. The manner in which the first A plot resolves itself relies on an extraordinary coincidence – something we can let go as unavoidable in most stories. Yet it sticks out as a sore thumb in an otherwise beautifully composed screenplay.
Decision to Leave is definitely Park operating in a more mature, clear-eyed key. Gone are any excess sex or nudity or even overt violence though this is a crime thriller. What we have in its place is a ready wit – visual and verbal – as well as a melancholy feeling of yearning, generated primarily through the haunting central romance. Park’s interesting, complex protagonists chart their circuitous paths towards seemingly inevitable fates. But what moves us most is the inscrutability of human desire, the conspiracy of circumstances, and that unknowable something that we seek in other people – novelty, adventure or perhaps just a connection.