Park Chan-wook | 2hr 18min
There are so many scenes in Decision to Leave that leave us teetering on the edge of mountains and rooftops, it is somewhat surprising to find the most impactful death of the film takes place on a lonely beach. As the tide rolls in, a hole slowly fills with sand and sea water, burying its occupant in a mystery that will forever haunt Detective Hae-jun from this point on.
As we have already learnt, he is not a man who lets go of unsolved cases easily, sticking their photos up in the apartment he lives in during the week, and making them as much a part of himself as the marriage he returns to on weekends. This compartmentalisation is the only way he can properly function as a normal human being, drawing a sharp divide between his home and work life, and yet even his wife knows that this isn’t a perfect solution. As she observes early on, he grows morose when his life becomes too peaceful, suggesting a need for “murder and violence to be happy.” Given the thematic fascinations running through Park’s career of brutally spell-binding thrillers, perhaps he sees a bit of himself in his main character.
It is with this in mind that we begin to see pieces of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo seep into Decision to Leave, with both similarly bearing the mark of male obsession – though how much it belongs to the director versus the protagonist is somewhat ambiguous. In Park’s film, the subject of Hae-jun’s fixation is the freshly-widowed Seo-rae, whose husband fell from a cliff while mountaineering. It seems that he could spend hours in the interrogation room with her, not so much picking apart her story than simply enjoying her company, and Park too relishes setting these scenes against a giant two-way mirror, creating another pair of figures mimicking their conversation. Split diopter lenses and focus pulls frequently force us to switch our gaze between the characters and their reflections, and as our eyes dart around otherwise static shots, we begin to question whether Hae-jun is really the only one here leading a double life.
This visual precision consistently accompanies our investigation all through Decision to Leave, with Park inserting cutaways to the subtlest reactions and details – often the slight movement of a hand, or the tan line left by an absent wedding ring. Camera zooms and delicately framed close-ups similarly pull us into the intimate world of these characters, though perhaps Park’s greatest formal decision here is the tightening of space between detective and suspect, as imagined by Hae-jun. Though he speaks to Seo-rae on the phone from a distance and traces her steps at the scene of the crime several weeks after it took place, he pictures himself right by her side, intensely studying her movements as an invisible observer. In this voyeuristic compulsion there is something that goes beyond intellectual interest or romantic passion though. Their relationship is defined by an unresolved longing, simultaneously drawing them together and keeping them an inch apart, like characters in a Wong Kar-wai film.
As such, great heights and tumbling drops become fitting metaphors for this dangerous connection, frequently threatening to send Hae-jun over the edge of sheer declines. When he chases a suspect along city rooftops, the camera briskly flies up above his head, and Park does well to pick out a particularly narrow mountaintop as the site where Seo-rae’s first husband perishes, revealing its plateaued peak in a dizzying panorama.
It is ultimately this Vertigo-adjacent motif which earns the compelling developments of the final act. If Hae-jun is represented by soaring elevations, then Seo-rae is the sea, pulling those around her down to her level and sending damning evidence into its depths. The tension in this connection does not come from any malice on her part, as she herself recognises the sacrifices he makes in protecting her, but the potential detriment it may wreak on his life is nonetheless present. It is a fine, formal balance of soaring highs and plummeting lows that Park draws through this tenuous bond in Decision to Leave, and just as its ambiguous resolution haunts Hae-jun in his endless search for what he lost, so too does its deathly, oceanic imagery settle a melancholic longing over us.
Decision to Leave is currently playing in theatres.