Monday, October 24, 2022

Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave: Investigating Murder for Business and Pleasure

DECISION TO LEAVE / Heojil kyolshim
(Park Chan-wook, Korea, 2022, 139 minutes)

Jang Hae-joon (The Host's Park Hae-il) is a Busan detective who only sees his wife on the weekends due to her job at a nuclear facility in Ipo, but they seem to have a good relationship, particularly sexually. And maybe it's best that they don't spend much time together, because he's fully invested--possibly too invested--in his job. 

It becomes an obsession when he investigates the death of 60-year-old rock-climbing enthusiast Ki Do-soo (Yoo Seung-mok). Did he jump or was he pushed? Hae-joon and his partner rappel up Guso Mountain to check things out, risking their own lives in the process. Next, they meet Song Seo-rae (Lust, Caution's Tang Wei), a Chinese woman so much younger than the victim that they assume she's his daughter--she's his wife. 

Seo-rae isn't the least bit surprised--or even upset--by Do-soo's death, implying that he was suicidal. Nonetheless, the detective suspects murder, not least when Seo-rae promptly stops wearing her wedding ring, so he looks into her background, but the employer and the elderly patients with whom she works praise the caregiver. Aside from her pleasant bedside manner, the trained nurse is, apparently, "good at giving injections."

As he investigates, Hae-joon imagines that he's with her, at home and at work, breathing in her intoxicating scent. Waking life and daydreams converge as he asks more questions, secures a DNA sample, sorts through cell phone clues, stakes out her apartment, and meets with one of her patients. What starts out as surveillance soon looks more like voyeurism. Seo-rae, aware of his presence, doesn't seem to mind. He watches as she smokes, eats ice cream, and watches old TV dramas. 

Just as his boss pressures him to wrap up the case, his partner discovers that Seo-rae killed her mother. When Hae-joon questions her about it, he finds that the situation wasn't quite so clear-cut. In the process, she questions him about his job, and he tells her about a few cases. 

They continue to see each other, even after the case is closed, or maybe it's all in his imagination. It's possible that he's still investigating, and that she's still trying to prove her innocence, or that they're just compensating for the spouses who aren't there, one dead and the other out of town. 

In a way, Decision to Leave recalls the erotic thrillers of the 1980s in which detectives who should know better become obsessed with murder suspects or other kinds of bad-omen women, except this film, for which Park won best director at Cannes, focuses more on psychology than carnality, though the surveillance/voyeurism doubles as a form of sex. No one would confuse it for Basic Instinct or Body Double, though it seems likely that Park appreciates both Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven at their trickiest. 

The filmmaker has worked noir elements into his films before, particularly 2016 psychological thriller The Handmaiden, but this is the closest he's come to noir without plunging full-bore into the genre. As he told Film Stage, "This might sound surprising, but I'm not the biggest fan of the noir genre." It's also his funniest film in a playful, Chungking Express-like way. There's more action, too--foot chases through streets and over the tops of roofs--but less gore, other than a few scratches on arms and legs.  

Genre aside, Park has always been the opposite of predictable, and at the halfway mark, Decision to Leave takes a turn. Hae-joon and Seo-rae have moved on with their lives, but they haven't forgotten about each other. If anything, Seo-rae has become equally obsessed over time.  

Hae-joon's wife, Jeong-ahn (K-pop singer Lee Jung-hyun), believes he's happiest when he's investigating a murder. 

As the months pass, locations, colleagues, and sartorial signifiers change, but another high-profile case comes his way just as he was starting to grow bored with small town life after a move from Busan to Ipo, and the film's second half essentially repeats the first, except that everything is different in some way, not least what the characters think about each other--and what we think about them. 

For all that the film has going for it, from Yeong-wook Jo's Bernard Hermmannesque score to Ji-yong Kim's lustrous cinematography, the chemistry between the leads keeps things crackling. While Seo-rae plays her cards close to her chest, outside of a disclosure toward the end, Hae-joon is consistently expressive--and his range of expressions is inexhaustible (Tang first played a femme fatale in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, and she's very good at it). The attraction is as understandable as the tension.  

In the end, there's something they find irresistible about the detective-suspect/hunter-prey dynamic. Park and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung never explain it; they just leave clues, providing more information, for instance, about Seo-rae's past than Hae-joon's. To my mind, it's a little like the dominant-submissive relationship in Peter Strickland's Duke of Burgundy. You might think Hae-joon has the upper hand, but...maybe he doesn't. 

The two share a form of love, but it isn't necessarily a sustainable kind. It's also a form of psychosis, but it isn't necessarily a treatable kind. Park Chan-wook's 11th film is his most inscrutable, his most romantic--and his best.


Decision to Leave is playing now at the Regal Meridian and SIFF Cinema Uptown. It opens at Northwest Film Forum on Fri, Oct 28. Images from JoySauce (Song Seo-rae), Awards Daily (Song and Park Hae-il), the IMDb (Song), and Bloody Disgusting (Song and Park).  

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