On its deceptively clean surface, Park Chan-wook’s Decided to leave is the story of a detective who falls obsessively in love with a suspect. But it is like saying Alain Resnais Last year At Marienbad is about a man and woman who meet at a hotel. In Park’s first film since 2016s The Maid, the devil is in the details—and there are dizzying amounts of them. The South Korean director, working at the top of his game, drops tantalizing clues that are best analyzed in multiple viewings which, it can be reported from first-hand experience, will be very helpful.
Its relentless visual ingenuity underscores the yearning that detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, taking his place among the great film noir detectives) feels for possible black widow Seo-rae (a compelling Tang Wei of Lust, careful). They show simmering chemistry in this poignant and almost inscrutable love story, where the more Hae-joon learns about Seo-rae, the more mysterious she becomes, making the viewer constantly question what they see and hear. Whether Seo-rae killed not one but two men is beside the point, while Park, in a way that feels both timeless and distinctly modern, uses her possible crimes to tell a story that is coolly restrained, but still seething with repressed desire.
Kept cool is not a phrase one would normally use to describe Park’s work. Yet here he throws down the 2003s gonzo violence old boy and the hothouse erotica of The Maid and replace it with deeply felt emotions that remain forever unexpressed through shifting visual viewpoints that keep us off balance. The eye drops that Hae-joon uses to clear his vision are our first indication that everyone’s perception can be easily clouded. He is the youngest ever inspector in the busy South Korean city of Busan. His wife (Lee Jung-hyun) lives hours away in the sleepy, fog-covered town of Ipo, so the couple only see each other on weekends. “You need murder and violence to be happy,” she tells her husband – and that’s exactly what he gets when a dead man’s body is found at the foot of a sheer, vertiginous rock.
As Hae-joon begins his investigation, Park wrings humor from his meticulous and thorough nature, but his deeply internalized need for certainty will struggle against the irrational needs of his heart when he meets the dead man’s widow. Seo-rae arrived from China years earlier under difficult circumstances. She tends to announce that her Korean language skills are “inadequate”, which just makes her seem not entirely trustworthy. She’s also not particularly sad about her husband’s death, so when Hae-joon sees the man’s initials literally branded on her torso, Seo-rae goes from pitiful widow to prime murder suspect.
Seo-rae’s impenetrable air is complemented by Park’s ingenious use of technology to show how smartphones can create distance as much as they can bring people together. She often uses Google Translate to communicate with Hae-joon, adding a layer of disconnect between them. Later, a phone app is used to devastating effect, leaving Hae-joon devastated. Park does overplay his technological hand in the final stretch with a cell phone, retrieved from his underwater grave, which contains so many text messages and voice notes that it almost swallows the film. Park, never one to hold an audience’s hand, cheekily addresses the issue with Hae-joon’s line: “Why don’t you answer me straight? It’s so frustrating!”
After Seo-rae is ruled out as a suspect, the two continue to see each other, often at his home in Busan which contains an entire wall full of refrigerator photos. It’s a monument to Hae-joon’s tireless drive to achieve closure and his obsession with Seo-rae is based on the idea that she’s a mystery he can’t solve. As for Seo-rae, she sees Hae-joon as her protector, someone who “will treat me the way you want, the way you always did… like a suspect.” To convey such abstract ideas, Park, who works with outstanding cinematographer Kim Ji-yong, is always inventive, as when Hae-joon interacts with Seo-rae in her apartment, even though he is actually watching her from his car or the phone is talking to her.
Finally, the action jumps forward 13 months and moves to Ipo, where Hae-joon has been transferred so that he can live full-time with his wife. When they run into Seo-rae at a local market with her new husband, we wonder: did Seo-rae move to Ipo to escape Hae-joon? Or to get closer to him? The answer becomes irrelevant when the new man also ends up dead, and Hae-joon is forced back into Seo-rae’s seductive orbit. Park relishes the Hitchcockian possibilities, both visually and thematically, of it all. He is greatly assisted by Cho Young-wuk’s beautifully textured score and, especially, the harmonious interaction of his two leads. Although much of their feelings for each other are left unsaid, their precision movements express their intense connection, as in a masterfully staged interrogation scene that ends with Hae-joon and Seo-rae quietly finishing their lunch and the table like a long-married pair.
Working at high levels of craftsmanship and with the delicacy of a watchmaker, Park spins an intricate web where everything has its place, even seemingly unrelated moments like the well-staged rooftop chase and the tasty, if not authentic, Chinese food which Hae-joon prepares for Seo-rae. The downside of Park and Jeong Seo-kyeong’s dense and winding screenplay is that its tragic ending works on an intellectual, puzzle-solving level more than an emotional one. But with Decided to leave, Park expands his formidably deep skill set. The film is a reserved (for Park, at least) and probing drama about a man who risks being professionally corrupted and personally destroyed by a woman he knows everything about—and nothing.