“If she’s young, beautiful, and foreign, does that make her a murder suspect?” This is the question Decision to Leave (2022), the latest film from enigmatic South Korean director Park Chan-wook presents, never giving a straight answer and throwing off both the characters as well as the audience.
Insomniac Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is indifferently married to his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) and by the way he commits to his investigations, you’d think he’s married to his work. He wades through each day lifelessly until a mysterious new case arises; a man’s mangled body is discovered at the foot of a climbing rock. Hae-joon is electrified by the new case and begins to wonder how the man died. Was it suicide? Was he pushed? He meets the deceased man’s wife, the alluring and suspicious Seo-rae (Tang Wei), and their attraction towards each other grows stronger and eventually beyond professional boundaries, blurring the truth about her husband’s death.
The two leads, Tang Wei and Park Hae-il, have magnetic chemistry. Wei portrays her character with mystique and just the right amount of acidity while Park Hae-il harmoniously depicts his character’s relentless malaise. The dynamic between the two is compelling to watch as they hesitantly find the next steps in their scandalous relationship. The supporting cast is fantastic too. Go kyung-pyo as Hae-joon’s quick-witted partner provides comic relief and Seo Hyun-woo commits to his role as the criminal Slappy so well, that you are going to want to slap him. I wish the supporting characters got a chance to develop rather than just the two romantic leads, but with the movie’s story, there wasn’t any room for that. Nevertheless, the supporting cast make the most out of their time, and add personality to Decision to Leave’s puzzling journey. Tang Wei had the best performance and I loved watching her interact with Park Hae-il. The film’s noir vibe is thanks to the acting of the two, portraying forbidden love in a weary, peculiar way.
Furthermore, I do believe the movie was directed better than it was written. The murder mystery itself is not that complex but the psychological relationship between cop and suspect gives the film an intricate feeling. It’s not so much a “whodunit” but rather a “whydunit.” The film’s steady pace was thanks to its sharp, yet unexpected, comedic moments. Despite the dark tones of the movie, Chan-wook balances humor and drama effortlessly, showing that he is a master of his craft. Overall, it truly is a romance movie, albeit in a strange way only Park Chan-woo can deliver. “I wanted to make a film telling a love story without saying the words ‘I love you,’” Chan-woo explains in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. He completely succeeds in doing so. The sensual tension between Hae-joon and Seo-rae is hard to deny, and they explore their relationship in an unconventional way. Their intellectual intercourse proves that they are more connected spiritually rather than attracted by lust. It is an intriguing portrayal of love and kept me curious.
Park Chan-wook displays the abstract parts of Hae-joon and Seo-rae’s relationship through the use of symbols. The movie is so densely packed with symbolism that you may need to watch it again to fully understand it. From the mountains, to the sea, to the eyedrops, to the mist: what does it all mean? And is it really necessary to give these objects meaning? The overabundance of symbolism made it difficult to focus on the plot because I was constantly deciphering the representations the movie was throwing at me and complicated the lovers’ relationship. I felt like Chan-wook was juggling too many ideas and by including all of them, it made the film more pretentious than it should’ve been. Don’t get me wrong, I love interpreting a good symbol when I see one, but in Decision to Leave, it was hard to focus on any.
The cinematography, though, is breathtaking; wide shots of the ocean and the mountains really stand out and give the movie a majestic tone. The clever camera angles add to Seo-rae and Hae-joon’s secretive intimacy. The quick transitions and shots of the character’s POVs contributed to the film’s eccentric mood.
Music plays a key role in Decision to Leave and the placement of songs like Mahler’s 5th Symphony and Mist by Jung Hoon Hee fit so well. Composer Jo Yeong-wook does a commendable job at matching the score with the movie’s energy: intense to fit the fight scenes, tender for the romantic scenes, and subdued for the contemplative scenes. His utilization of the flute stood out to me especially.
With the success of Korean media in the U.S. (movies like Parasite and TV shows like Squid Game), Decision to Leave could be South Korea’s next big export. It’s already won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival and is a submission for Best International Feature at this year’s Oscars. It was a hyped film for many, and I can see why. This film deserves all the success it receives.
So to answer the question, does youth, beauty, and foreignism make someone a suspect for murder? The answer lies somewhere in the elaborate layers of Park Chan-wook’s mastery. This is the story of a man who is unhappy, going through the motions of life and being revitalized by someone he can never be with. His illicit temptation for a beguiling, damaged woman leads him to make mistakes. But maybe those mistakes were worth it. Both characters don’t know what they want from each other which directs them through a self-destructive downfall created by their own torment. You want things to work out for them, even though subconsciously you know it can’t. By the end, you’ll be completely shattered.
Decision to Leave took place at the Northwest Film Forum on October 28 — November 23, 2022. For more information see here.