By James Slaymaker.
Decision to Leave builds a sense of tragic weight more potent than anything else in Chan-wook’s oeuvre.”
Park Chan-wook’s new film, Decision to Leave, may appear at first glance to be an uncharacteristically straight police procedural drama. Its set-up is pure pulp: Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is a jaded detective whose commitment to work is causing tension in his marriage to Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun). Well into middle-age and growing tired of the staid routine of relatively low-stakes cases and passionless weekends spent with his transparently dissatisfied spouse (‘55% of sexless marriages end in divorce’, she tells her husband near the beginning of the film, though both parties are too apathetic to seriously consider separation at this point), Hae-jun begins to suffer insomnia. Hae-jun’s professional and romantic lives seem to be rejuvenated, however, when the body of a mountain climber is found at the bottom of a steep peak. After analysing the evidence found at the scene, Hae-jun’s partner becomes convinced that this was a murder, not an accident or a suicide, and suspicion falls on the victim’s victim’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei),who stands to inherit a vast sum of money from the demise and who, when being brought in for questioning, appears shockingly cavalier. Hae-jun is assigned to place Seo-rae under heavy surveillance, a task he throws himself into with enthusiasm: he tracks her movement through the city, spies on her throw the window when she returns home at night, and talks about her with the patients she tends to in her job as a care worker. Although Hae-jun at first claims that his excitement is a result of finally having the opportunity to work on a high-profile case, it soon becomes clear that his intense dedication to this role is primarily motivated by his rapidly growing infatuation with Seo-rae.
Following the beguiling, erotically charged period drama The Handmaiden (2016), Decision to Leave may sound surprisingly straightforward – a regression into the relative conventionality of Chan-wook’s breakout film Joint Security Area (2000) rather than an evolution of his style. Yet, as the film unfolds, it quickly becomes clear that the trappings of the procedural thriller are merely the broad scaffolding which Chan-wook uses to construct an enigmatic study of obsession, manipulation, and desire. As somebody who has long admired the dynamism of Chan-wook’s form style but been put off by his tendency to telegraph his subtext with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and his compulsion to self-consciously lapse into grating, theatre-of-cruelty theatrics (both of these tendencies are most egregiously exemplified by Stoker (2013), a shrill and self-satisfied movie which pointlessly recycles the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) while stripping it of all its nuance), I was pleasantly surprised by the restraint and confidence of Decision to Leave. Despite its somewhat formulaic genre set-up, very little time is devoted to police work. Instead, the film is structured as a series of exchanges – verbal, intellectual, physiological, emotional – between Hae-jun and Seo-rae, two individuals who feel an irrepressible bond despite being physically separated from one another for much of the running time. Chan-wook doesn’t organise the drama in terms of classically constructed scenes so much as he constructs a dense, lyrical montage orchestrated around visual rhymes, emotional states and moments of dialogical exchange between the two leads. Moreover, the film’s leisurely, meandering pace allows Chan-wook to eschew the narrative momentum of the classical procedural in favour of zeroing in intently on moments that are usually skimmed over. The act of preparing for an interrogation, for instance, is lingered on in exacting detail, and a large chunk of the film’s first half focuses on Hae-jun as he repeatedly follows Seo-rae’s movements, with only minor differences between each iteration. Nobody would describe Decision to Leave as ‘slow cinema’ – Chan-wook’s camera is far too restless and his editing too brisk for that designation – though it is notable just how much the film draws out moments of build-up and pushes back significant narrative events. Chan-wook has become known for devising convoluted, puzzle-like plotlines in the past, but the narrative trajectory of Decision to Leave is decidedly linear and simplistic – this is very much a film that’s less interesting to discuss in terms of what it’s about that how it’s about it.
Much of Decision to Leave is composed around mirrors, windows, binoculars, surveillance feeds, and phone screens, thus visually articulating the paradoxical combination of intimacy and distance which defines the largely ambiguous relationship between Hae-jun and Seo-rae.”
The cinematic ur-text from which Chan-wook draws here is Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) but, unlike the stale pastiche Stoker, Decision to Leave skillfully translates the core ideas of Hitchcock’s film to a new time period and culture. Decision to Leave shares with Hitchcock’s masterwork an emphasis on voyeurism, a focus on romantic projection, and a diptych structure organised a central temporal rupture. Like Vertigo’s Scottie (James Stewart), Hae-jun spends much of his screen time obsessively stalking the obscure object of his desire, using his designated detective work to fulfil his own desires. In collecting fragments of information about Seo-rae’s life and gazing intently at her from a distance, he mentally constructs a fantasy woman who bears a dubious resemblance to the real individual. Immersing himself in the rhythms of Seo-rae’s life, Hae-jun steadily builds a desire for her which escalates to the point it becomes all-consuming. At first, he is satisfied with watching her from a remove and indulging in fantasies; when this is no longer enough for him, however, he directly insinuates himself into the life of his suspect, creating reasons for the two to spend time together under the guise of furthering the investigation. The pair grow closer, though Hae-jun is never completely convinced he can place trust in her intentions. There is more than a touch of masochism underlining Hae-jun’s obsession, as he distances himself from every element of his old life in pursuit of his victim, despite believing that the two will never truly be together: he knows that their union would be crossing a professional line that he is never quite comfortable with doing; he is uncomfortable with the idea of cheating on his wife; and he never rids himself of the paranoid thought that Seo-rae may be a master criminal only pretending to feel affection for him so that she may achieve her own ends. These factors do not dissuade Hae-jun from pursuing Seo-rae – on the contrary, the searing emotional pain the pursuit causes him is an integral part of his infatuation with her. The fact that the relationship between the two is a series of ebbs and flows, of fleeting meetings and separations, never fully realised, only intensifies both Hae-jun’s infatuation and deepens his agony. He can never be fully sure what Seo-rae’s motives are or what their connection can be defined as, as this sense of uncertainty proves to be irresistible to him. In this sense, like Vertigo, the film conflates the act of becoming infatuated with another person with the act of criminal investigation. Both processes, Decision to Leave suggests, involve obsessive analytical thinking, efforts to get into the mind of another, and attempts to jump to solid conclusions based on stray clues which never reveal the full picture.
Much of Decision to Leave is composed around mirrors, windows, binoculars, surveillance feeds, and phone screens, thus visually articulating the paradoxical combination of intimacy and distance which defines the largely ambiguous relationship between Hae-jun and Seo-rae. Often, the two characters are initially presented in separate one-shots within different locations before being merged together within hybrid compositions. After all, despite all the time and attention he dedicates to tracking her every movement and gathering information about her personal history, Hae-jun cannot access her inner life. For a man as scrupulous and detail-orientated as Hae-jun, her inscrutability is maddening, and even when he thinks he successfully pulls himself away from her orbit, even going so far as to relocate from Busan to the seaside town of Seo-rae, she resurfaces, and they once again find themselves irresistibly drawn towards one another. Because of its methodical slow-burn construction and the delicate attention it devotes to the nuances of the ever-shifting interplay of its central characters, Decision to Leave builds a sense of tragic weight more potent than anything else in Chan-wook’s oeuvre.
James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book is Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann (Telos Publishing). His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.