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Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave

Heavy mist and the truths beneath

With Decision to Leave, Park Chan-wook devotes himself once again and more directly than ever before to love and its destructive forces.

Written by


Jan 12, 2023

© Mubi

The director behind Oldboy and The Handmaiden, returns with a gripping new film that seamlessly blends classic romantic fatalism with a modern take on film noir. It’s a complex exploration of desire, morality and the dangerous ties that inevitably bind both things together.

There is a dead man and the mystery of whether it was an accident or murder. So soon after, paths cross between insomnia-stricken detective Hae-jun and Seo-rae, the widow of the deceased. The unexpected attraction of the two results in an impossible love that threatens to drag them both into a deep abyss from which they can no longer escape.

Park Chan-wook’s take on the figure of the femme fatale is both masterful and subversive. Rather than simply adopting the traditional and often insidious portrayal of the femme fatale as manipulative and conniving, he adds a complexity and depth to his female character that goes beyond the cliché. He emphasises the conflict between rationality and the darker impulses of the human psyche through veritable individuals whose actions and motivations are shaped by their inherent inner turmoil. This creates a sense of empathy and understanding that is often missing in the typical femme fatale narrative. Through his unique approach to the genre, Park Chan-wook challenges the audience to question their preconceptions of everything they witness.

© Mubi

“Both are part of the same cycle in which they shape each other and are shaped by each other.”

The gradually emerging love is pictured in a way that is both distant and absorbing. Park Chan-wook crafts a meta-realistic stage that creates a dreamlike pull, but also a rapid opposition to reality. It is often these contrasts that give this film a poetic quality. In this way, there are the repeated allegorical connections of the characters, in that he represents the mountains and she the ocean.

The mountain as well as the detective can be seen as permanence, firmly rooted in the earth, watching over the people, who conversely can also look up with appreciation. On the contrary, she, the ocean, is an endlessness full of secrets and mysteries in its depths. Like the mountains and the sea, the two are not as different as they first appear. Both are part of the same cycle in which they shape each other and are shaped by each other. Park Chan-wook addresses these external contrasts in order to continuously illuminate their inner confrontation. The symbolism is sometimes hidden, sometimes canvas-filling. They are less connected with insights than with questions about the relations of all things.

Those familiar with Park Chan-wook’s films will not be surprised that the colours also clearly echo this theme. Be it details in the background or the clothes that are worn. He often employs bold, saturated hues to create a sense of heightened reality. Park also makes elegant use of movement within the image; it is particularly remarkable, when the protagonist moves through a series of fluent shots and his world of thoughts is thus given actual breathing space. A technique that he has already used in a similar way in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.

Like the scenery of the film, everything that happens is obscured by a thick fog, not only what we see, but also what is spoken remains ambiguous. Seo-rae, wonderfully played by Tang Wei, is a Chinese immigrant, so Korean and Chinese are mixed in their conversations so that words only get to each other after translation. What is said here often remains vague, the truest communication between the two takes place much more between the slight gestures. Unsurprising with Park Chan-wook is the tendency of the overuse of technical camera trickery and symbolism that, while impressive, can blind us for these delicate scenes, that hide nuances of human interaction. There were moments where I found myself wishing for a deeper exploration of the quieter scenes—it’s these moments that allow us to connect with the characters on a deeper level, and it’s through these connections that the themes of the film are able to resonate with us on a more personal level. They were the moments that truly lingered in my mind, but often felt overshadowed by the excessive presence of the direction.

The music by Park Chan-wook’s career-long composer Cho Young-wuk is more delicate and subtle than usual, which serves to underline the ambiguity as well as the characters' emotional reticence. Its restraint and predominance on the mysterious elements, ensures the build-up and impact of the emotional finale and a closing musical composition that aptly encapsulates the emotional state of the characters.

From the opening shot to the closing credits, Decision to Leave is a feast for the senses, with images like paintings and a desperate love story that is increasingly devoted to interpersonal relationships over thrills. What truly sets it apart is its poetic nature. There might just be a slight flaw in the delicate dance, balancing the need for visual artistry with the longing for emotional truth. It felt the two were not completely in sync, leading to an over-emphasis on intellect at the expense of emotional impact on the viewer. Still, Park Chan-wook has succeeded to blend a truly Hitchcockian detective story with the director’s own unique flavour for form, poetry and alluring romance.

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