Park Chan-wook’s new noir-inflected thriller premieres in Madison at UW Cinematheque on October 27.
Watching Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave (2022) is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Not a simple 100-, 300-, or 500-piece puzzle, but one that seems to taunt and challenge passersby from the shelf with an intricate, dizzying design and bold-printed “5,000 PIECES.” And, just as you’re on the brink of the solution, putting them all together, you realize with a sinking incredulousness that you can’t find the last piece anywhere.
At first, the process of fathoming Decision To Leave (screening as part of UW Cinematheque’s Premieres Series on Thursday, October 27 at 7 p.m.) seems easy enough. When Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) begins to investigate enigmatic widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei) as the prime suspect in her husband’s mysterious death, he finds himself falling in love with her—even as the evidence against her piles up.
Veteran director Park doesn’t hesitate to lead viewers into a rhythm they’ve come to expect by dotting the opening sequences with the hallmarks and traditions of the South Korean noir crime thriller. One can’t help but notice the irony of Park Hae-il, who formerly portrayed the elusive suspect in a string of serial killings in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories Of Murder (2003), taking on the role of disgruntled detective. Aside from its casting choices, though, Decision To Leave provides other archetypes to make its audience falsely confident in what’s to come: the young, comically-drunken sidekick detective with misplaced aggression (Go Kyung-pyo), chase scenes that end in acts of dubious violence, mobsters with nicknames based on their go-to fight moves, and interrogations in rooms with one-way mirror glass.
Given Park’s propensity to subvert conventions of the mystery genre throughout his career, however, it makes sense that Decision To Leave follows its predecessors’ sensibilities. That is, murder becomes the least mysterious part about the narrative he spins. Rather, viewers will instead need to shift their focus on figuring out the tortuous tension between Hae-jun and Seo-rae.
Their romance never reaches its peak in the standard sense, and can easily be misunderstood if one takes their eyes off the screen for merely a second. “The audience will have to pay very good attention to all the small details of their facial expressions and their gestures,” Park said in a recent interview with Little White Lies. “And they will have to listen very carefully to what they say and how they use those words in order to really find out what is going on underneath everything.”
Through twitches of an eye or subtle movements of an arm, Park Hae-il and Tang’s performances both succeed in saying what their director’s dialogue refuses to say outright, for the sake of making viewers work for the answers. Tang’s performance as the seductive suspect, who happens to be a Chinese immigrant facing intense discrimination and abuse within imbalanced marriages, could have easily become another face to add to the annals of the “conniving but helpless woman” trope. Instead, she molds an intensely emotional character that purposely rubs up against patriarchal power—what law enforcement agencies tend to represent in film and other art forms. When Seo-rae is questioned further about her role in her husband’s death, she essentially and antagonistically asks, “Shouldn’t you be pitying me because I’m a woman?” It shapes the idea that Decision To Leave is not just another cat-and-mouse thriller, but a chilling romance of true equals.
The distorting flashbacks, achronological story structure, and hypothetical dramatizations all further contribute to the sometimes frustrating—though ultimately rewarding—experience that Decision To Leave pushes onto its viewer. Like Detective Hae-jun, one might consider the case closed when Seo-rae’s alibi is confirmed through security camera footage. But suddenly, after watching minutes of Hae-jun and Seo-rae play at the fantasy of domestic bliss, the next scene cuts it down with the logical explanation for the impossibility of someone being in two places at once.
Time and time again, Seo-rae is depicted as clever enough to discern the exact coverage area of a camera and to handily switch out her phone with her employer’s so as not to be tracked. Yet, she’s also seen as tender enough to help Hae-jun battle his insomnia, whispering words of comfort, even as she surreptitiously undermines his professional assignment. Viewers are simply left to wonder how to tether together the strange dynamic between characters who rarely say how they feel in understandable terms and a sequence of events that seems to break the rules of reality.
Kim Ji-yong’s uncomfortably precise and crisp cinematography helps elucidate what Park and Jeong Seo-Kyeong aimed for when they co-wrote Decision To Leave. In one second, Kim focuses on the nauseating close-ups of ants crawling about an eyeball of a dead man or photographs of bodily horrors tacked up on an “unresolved cases” board. In the next, he captures breathtaking shots of rocky seaside cliffs or a snowy mountaintop for the setting of a first kiss. All the pieces of the film are jagged and obfuscated, blazing past one in a way that makes one’s own thoughts feel incomprehensible, and its visuals work to solidify that physical sensation of frustration when they seem to be at odds at every cut.
So, while you’re searching for that final piece and a revelation that will make it all make sense, it seems that Decision To Leave intentionally obscured it. Park delights in watching audiences scratch their heads to figure it out. The hardest puzzles are the ones that coax you into the challenge of putting 5,000 pieces together, but only provide you with 4,999 to do it.