Park Chan-wook won the director’s prize at Cannes 2022 for Decision to Leave and the film has recently been released in the UK. It is featured in the December 2022 issue of Sight and Sound has been discussed widely. For that reason I’m just going to give a few personal responses rather than a full review. I think it is one of the best films of 2022, but I need to watch it several times to unravel what is a complex and many-layered narrative.
Most of the reviews have suggested that the film is ‘Hitchcockian’ and Vertigo has been one of the inspirations mentioned. I think this is mostly because one of the most important scenes includes a climb up and a look down a vertiginous rock-face, but otherwise more generic film noir references are appropriate. There is an element of a Hitchcock ‘romance thriller’ but not presented in a way Hitchcock would have recognised perhaps. This is a narrative about a police detective who is ‘married’ to his job so much that he lives during the week in South Korea’s second city Busan in the South East, only seeing his wife at weekends in the town of Ipo. I haven’t found Ipo on the map but it is in a more mountainous region which I assume is in the north of the country? The detective Jang Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) becomes obsessed with the death of a man who falls from the top of a rock-climb and begins to suspect the man’s wife Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei). He gets far too close to his suspect and eventually is forced to transfer to Ipo where his wife works at a nuclear facility. He is then surprised when Song Seo-rae arrives in Ipo with a new husband.
I became deeply enmeshed in the narrative but no doubt still missed important clues. What did strike me is that the film felt like an American film noir melded with a Japanese crime film – I thought about at least three or four Japanese films featuring snowy wastes, beaches and cliffs. But I was also struck by similarities to Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003). This is particularly the case in relation to the junior detectives Jang works with in both Busan and Ipo. They don’t understand Jang’s dedication and his detailed approach and they are presented as slightly comical. Jang’s junior partner in Ipo is played by Kim Shin-young, a well-known TV comedian, MC and DJ in South Korea. The Busan partner is played by Go Kyung-Pyo, who also started his acting career in TV comedy. I haven’t watched enough Korean films recently and that means that I forget faces. I realise now that I have seen Park Hae-il in several films including two of Bong Joon Ho’s films, Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006). I’ve also been impressed by him in the historical action film War of the Arrows (2011) and the family comic melodrama Boomerang Family (2013). He is clearly a versatile leading man.
Much as I admired Park Hae-il’s performance, however, I was almost overwhelmed by Tang Wei. I have seen a review by a leading Western critic in which he thinks there is a ‘lack of passion’ between Hae-Joon and Seo-rae. The same critic may be correct about the relative neglect of attention given to Hae-joon’s wife by the script and by Park as director, but Tang Wei exudes an extraordinary eroticism for me and made me think about some of my favourite 1940s film noir stars. The couple don’t have to rip each others clothes off for there to be an erotic tension in their senes but there are moments when they touch as part of the investigation. I should note too that like Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound, I did find that the costumes Seo-rae wears were carefully chosen to give her a very specific and memorable image. I thought I recognised Tang Wei and now I realise she played lead roles in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Taiwan-US-HK-China 2007) and Ann Hui’s The Golden Era (HK-China 2014). Born in China but married to a South Korean director, Tang has appeared before in Korean films. In Decision to Leave she plays a Chinese immigrant who actually has Korean heritage through her grandfather who was part of the resistance movement against Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s and who went to fight the Japanese in Manchuria. I’m not certain I’ve remembered the dialogue about this correctly but the main point is that Park’s film uses the Chinese-Korean relationship and questions about immigration as an element in his film whereas it is excluded in many other contemporary Korean films or treated via heavily typed characters and situations (see Eugene Kwon’s piece in the Sight and Sound December 2022 special on South Korean Cinema). Park also finds ways to use a range of phone technologies in the narration of the film, including a translation app which means that Seo-rae can produce her phone and speak Mandarin, allowing the app to speak the appropriate Korean translation.
Park Chan-wook is discussed as an auteur but his collaborators are also important. These include his co-scriptwriter Chung Seo-kyung, who, like Park, was a philosophy student and who met the director when he was on a judging panel looking at one of her scripts. She has since worked on five features for Park and also branched out into writing two TV long-form narratives with Little Women (a crime drama) recently released on Netflix. (Western publications seem to have had problems with her name, both IMDb and Wikipedia miss out her list of credits and even MUBI doesn’t seem aware of her range of work.) She too is interviewed in the Sight and Sound December 2022 issue. Cinematographer Kim Ji-yong is also troubled by naming issues but he is very experienced in South Korean cinema, with films by Kim Jee-woon, one of Park’s auteurist contemporaries, on his list of credits. For Park Chan-wook he offers some unusual images such as a subjective shot from the literally the eyeball of a corpse. This is one of Park’s innovations in the detective’s reconstruction of a crime. We get flashbacks and see Jang observing the crime taking place as he places himself at the scene and imagines he was there. These are all interesting ideas but I confess that it does make remembering the action in the film quite difficult as I try to deconstruct it. On the other hand it builds my expectation for a re-watch. Do get to see this on a big screen if you can.
This did show up on the big screen at Showcase (Birstall) several weeks back for a single performance, but I am glad to see it will be getting a wider release now. I have seen it touted as an ‘erotic drama’ which might frustrate some of its potential audience as there is zero nudity and the eroticism is all in the mind of the beholder. I would call it a perverse love story. If I was to draw a parallel with other noirish films I would perhaps pick Matty Walker in ‘Body Heat’ although she was considerably more hard-bitten. As ‘Memories of Murder’ and ‘Old Boy’ are two of my very favourite films you may gather I enjoyed this immensely although, as you point out, the convoluted story was very perplexing at points.