Film Review: Watching the Detective in Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave”

By Peter Keough

Yes, an ingeniously kaleidoscopic surface, but is there anything here, in terms of motivation, to justify all the fuss?

Decision to Leave, directed by Park Chan-wook. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, and the Boston Common.

Tang Wei as the mystery woman at the center of Decision to Leave.

“You know the word ‘suspect?’ It means someone the police are watching,” explains South Korean police inspector Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) near the end of Park Chan-wook ’s baroque, sumptuous, overwrought, and melancholy Decision to Leave . The suspect in question, Seo-rae, is from China and has an imperfect and idiosyncratic command of the Korean language. Hae-joon’s comment might seem pedantic, but it also serves the purpose of defining the narcissism that is fundamental to the hard-boiled detective genre in particular and cinema in general.

And Hae-joon, played by Park Hae-il, is an exemplary detective. He also evokes some of the long suffering gentility of James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), a film whose influence is splattered all over this one. Investigating the death of a climber who fell to his death from a mountain, he feels compelled to rappel up to the top rather than take a helicopter in order to follow the dead man’s final path. It shows a kind of respect for the victim, or sleuthing empathy. The dead man seems to respond to the gesture when we briefly share his point of view. The ants crawling on the guy’s face are seen through his eyes.

That image brings to mind a scene from the antic Chilean surrealist Raúl Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), a shot somehow taken from the interior of a character’s mouth. Park’s films have always indulged in such astonishing crotchets and technical tours de force, not to mention a spectacular knack for ingenious, Grand Guignol violence. The latter is toned down in this film (though more potent for its restraint), as is the flamboyant sex. Instead, Park opts here for subtlety and elegance punctuated by such unsettling touches as a gutted fish or eviscerated pomegranates or a suicide method as baroque and overdetermined as the dynamite necklace in Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965).

The director is especially adept at blurring the edges of past, present, and future along with subjective points of view. Reenactments of past events leak into the present and vice-versa. Flashbacks are more like splashbacks. And when Hae-joon settles into his favorite mode, that of the stakeout (holding binoculars, he resembles Stewart in Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window), he virtually enters into the scene he’s spying on.

At least when the suspect is Seo-rae, played by Tang Wei as a subtle beauty whose sad half-smile hides a mystery and other female stereotypes and who is a person of interest in the death of the mountain climber investigated at the beginning of the film. According to her back story, illustrated by Park’s blurring of time and subjectivity, she had to flee China (Did she murder someone there? Could it have been her mother?) and was rescued from the stinking hold of a fishing vessel after weeks at sea with dozens of other refugees. One man showed her compassion despite her wretched state — the mountain climbing victim, an immigration official. Though he was much older, she married him. Then his compassion turned to sadism and sociopathic possessiveness as X-rays and photos from an ER visit testify.

So, she had a motive. But Hae-joon’s hours of obsessive observation, supplemented by increasingly intimate interviews, only intensify his initial attraction to her. (There’s no sex, not even a kiss, which heightens the erotic tension, as in Wong Kar-wai’s 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love.) He notes her sadness, her poor diet, her efforts to improve her Korean by watching potboiler movies on TV. He does this with such intense sympathy that he enters the scene he is spying on, taking on the role of an invisible comforter, like an angel in Wings of Desire (1987). He is especially taken by her work as an aide to the elderly, which proves fortuitous when it provides her an alibi and establishes her innocence. And presumably ends their relationship.

Except [SPOILER ALERT] it seems Hae-joon has been duped by a pretty, cryptic face. The oldest trick in the book, or at least in the movies, with examples including The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Big Sleep (1946), The Long Goodbye (1973), and Chinatown (1974), among many others. Hae-joon confronts Seo-rae with the truth and tells her he is “completely shattered.” She has to look up the meaning of the latter word on her Korean to Chinese app.

That’s just the first half of the film. It picks up 13 months later in the foggy, fuddy-duddy town of Ipo, where Hae-joon has moved to live with his blandly chipper wife (Lee Jung-hyun), who works at the local nuclear power plant. He serves as a detective for the police department, but the biggest crime in these parts is the theft of 50-odd softshell turtles, prized as a supposed cure for middle-aged male depression and impotence. That is until Seo-rae moves into town with her new husband, another crass cad who is also a high-stakes grifter. Then Ipo sees its first murder case in ages. Like a repetition compulsion or a recurrent nightmare, the past is replayed with insidious variations.

Yes, an ingeniously kaleidoscopic surface, but is there anything here, in terms of motivation, to justify all the fuss? Not revenge, a theme Park exhausted in his so-called “Vengeance trilogy” — Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005). He literally has beaten vengeance to death, with a claw hammer no less in the case of the second installment, which might be his masterpiece.

Greed then? So it seems in his previous film, The Handmaiden (2016), but underlying that film’s decadently lush style, quasi-pornographic Sade-lite sex, and bewildering double and triple crosses (one wonders if Rian Johnson had seen it before making 2019’s Knives Out) lies an urge for justice and empowerment. As nice a guy as Hae-joon may be — in her oddly apt thesaurus-like terminology Seo-rae describes him as “dignified” — he is nonetheless, like the woman’s two ill-fated, charmless husbands, an agent of a patriarchal system. He can suspect her, watch her, but never really see who she is. In the end he will search a beach as the light fails and waves crash. The tide comes in, calling out her name.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).

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