Decision to Leave Programme Notes

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Contrary to the darkness, violence, and depravity that permeate his films, Park Chan-wook considers all of his films to be love stories.[1] Perhaps there’s truth to that. From the sickly betrayal of Oldboy to the twisted desires within Stoker, the celebrated Korean master has long been preoccupied with matters of the heart. And while films like I’m a Cyborg, But That’s Ok and The Handmaiden render their romances overt and idiosyncratic, Decision to Leave may be Park’s most traditional love story. Though, that doesn’t mean the film is ever conventional.

With Decision to Leave, Park subverts the formula of the police procedural with romance. Attraction blossoms in the interrogation room, as Busan detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) falls for Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the woman he suspects of murdering her husband. The police station becomes the setting for a meet-cute. Despite her dubious behaviour, the pair immediately develop an easy rhythm, exchanging premium sushi boxes and toothpaste like a married couple wrapping up for the night. Other investigative procedures take on new meaning as methods of flirtation: the stake-outs outside Seo-rae’s apartment become a comforting reprieve from Hae-joon’s bouts of insomnia. Here, the act of investigating is like falling in love itself. Interrogations are, to a certain extent, about getting to know someone.

This ability to transcend genre is only par for the course for a director who has always defied categorisation. While some critics have called Decision to Leave a film noir, Park hopes you look past such reductive descriptors. When I had the honour of speaking with Director Park, he vehemently rejected the noir label entirely, explaining that designating the film as such would make Seo-rae a femme fatale, which he also denies: ‘To me, in the modern world that we’re living, this formula of the femme fatale seducing the man into his demise is not so interesting.’[2] True to his belief, Seo-rae presents more complexities than the average femme fatale. She’s driven by more than her own self-serving interests, but by desperation, and the love she searches for in all the wrong places.

Decision to Leave finds Park at his most restrained. In stark contrast to the high-octane, razor-sharp tone of the visceral thrillers he’s known for, his latest is devoid of sex and violence. In this way, the interactions between Hae-joon and Seo-rae are even more potent. Park cultivates a delicate but heightened intimacy through the subtle displays of affection they tentatively exhibit: the mutual application of chapstick and lotion, the whiff of perfume from a wound. Each exchange, each feather-light touch, is just as ferociously charged as the swing of a knife. As if the viewer is a detective themselves, Decision to Leave forces you to stay alert for any signs of repressed love. Hae-joon and Seo-rae’s love language is a riddle to be decoded, and clues are left like a trail of love notes.

The pared-back nature of the film came from Park’s desire to go back to basics, following the intricate mystery of his John le Carré adaptation for the BBC, The Little Drummer Girl. ‘In this way, The Little Drummer Girl was issuing me orders: not to fashion some kind of complicated drama about global politics, but to make the simplest of love stories,’ he wrote in an essay for Empire magazine. ‘Even The Handmaiden’s plot had also been quite complicated. Now, I wanted simplicity.’[3] When you see Decision to Leave, you’ll understand the irony. Never one for an easy way out, the film tangles itself in a messy web of half-truths and deceit, of complex motives and feelings left unspoken.

Park was also inspired by music, having always wanted to use the song ‘The Mist’ by Chung Hoon-hee in one of his works.[4] We hear it throughout the film, from the elderly woman that Seo-rae cares for – her phone also marking a pivotal turning point in the investigation. In this devastatingly romantic song, the artist laments walking alone through a ‘thick blanket of fog’ with only the memories of her loved one, who she dearly misses, to keep her company. It’s a song about loneliness, of feeling eternally shrouded by the mist. But in Decision to Leave, isolation is illusory. Over the film’s credits, we hear the song again, this time reworked into a duet. A pair of solitary individuals are circling each other, unable to truly find their lover through the fog.

Mist is as much a visual motif as it is a musical one. The foggy coastal city of Busan is boxed in by the sea on one side and the mountains on the other, symbols of freedom or oppression depending on one’s outlook. At one point, Seo-rae recounts a Confuscious saying – ‘wise people like water, benevolent people like mountains’ – and notes that she much prefers the sea. They say the wise are drawn to water because of its ability to weave around any obstacle. Seo-rae is just as serpentine in her ability to evade suspicion, but the optical illusion-like wallpaper in her home – which depicts what could be interpreted as both waves and a mountainscape – indicate that she is paradoxically trapped and liberated by the passing of her husband.

Hae-joon and Seo-rae are not only separated by professional boundaries, but by language too. The detective’s partner immediately weaponises her Chinese, and therefore foreign, identity against her – but could this simply be a case of innocence lost in translation? As Hae-joon attempts to eavesdrop on Seo-rae speaking in Chinese, he mistakes her request for his heart for his head. And as they grow closer, he helps her expand her Korean vocabulary. The pair try their best to communicate through translation apps, but the limits of technology fail to fully encapsulate the intricacies of their respective languages, and in turn, what they feel for each other.

In that sense, Hae-joon and Seo-rae are forced apart in every way, and the true thrill of their romance is felt in how they dare to tread those uncrossable boundaries. The ultimate goal for any investigation is to solve it, but Seo-rae is the one case he wishes to leave open. But even the most impossible of mysteries must end, and there is tragedy in such an inevitability. Decision to Leave is a star-crossed romance in its most intoxicating and heartbreaking form.

Iana Murray, Freelance Writer
October 2022

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[2] Little White Lies, Sep/Oct 2022



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