Obsession, murder and romance combine in this stunningly made inventive romantic film noir
Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Tang Wei (Song Seo-rae), Park Hae-il (Detective Jang Hae-jun), Lee Jung-hyun (Jung-an), Go Kyung-pyo (Soo-wan), Park Yong-woo (Im Ho-shin), Kim Shin-young (Yeon-su), Jung Yi-seo (Yoo Mi-ji), Jung Young-Sook (Granny Hae Dong), Yoo Seung-mok (Ki Do-soo), Park Jeong-min (San-oh), Seo Hyun-woo (Sa Cheol-seong “Slappy”)
Death from dizzying heights, a mysterious femme fatale and a detective who tips into unhealthy, romantic obsession. Sound familiar? Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is an enticing spin on Vertigo, but also a beautifully made marriage of Park’s visually dynamic style with classic Hollywood film noir. Decision to Leave is soaked in the sort of atmosphere you’d find in Laura or Double Indemnity and is a breath-taking marriage of half-a-dozen genres, from noir to romance to tragedy. It rotates continuously, no matter how much we observe and watch people, on how little we understand them – and how little we understand ourselves. It’s a stunning piece of film-making.
Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) is a high-flying Busan murder detective, the youngest senior investigator on the force. He’s also a reserved man, crippled with insomnia and weighed down with guilt over cases he failed to solve, conducting a long-distance marriage with Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun) a scientist at the nuclear plant in distant Ipo. He’s called into investigate the death of a civil servant and keen climbing enthusiast, who fell to his death from his favourite climbing spot. His much younger Chinese wife Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is strangely unmoved by his death and becomes the investigation’s focus. She also becomes the focus of Hae-jun’s sleep-deprived obsession as he stakes out her home. Gradually Seo-rae and Hae-jun form an intimate but unromantic relationship as they discover a deep bond between them. But does that mean that Seo-rae isn’t a murderer?
Questions of motivation and the reasoning behind decisions is central to Park’s film. At its heart is Seo-rae, a woman constantly unreadable, as hard to distinguish as her turquoise-tinged clothes are between blue or green (depending on who you talk to). A Chinese woman in South Korea, her Korean is formal and perfectly phrased but she relies on Google Translate to render more emotive sentences into Korean. She nurses ageing women in their homes, showing them care and attention. She might also be a murderer several times over, for motives that are impossibly unreadable.
It must be particularly unreadable for a detective whose mind is clouded by lack of sleep. Hae-jun’s eyes in his lined, weary face are frequently blurred by eye drops (the same eye drops covering POV camera shots). As a detective he’s prepared for everything. He wears trainers, constantly prepared for sudden sprints after criminals (one of these sees him pounding up the side of Busan’s mountain – both he and the suspect collapsing, wheezing for breath, at the top), he has specially tailored coats filled with any object he might need, from tissues to aspirin to a knife glove for hand-to-hand combat. He is calm, unruffled and ready for anything. He’s also a man who struggles with knowing who or what he wants and has placed such pressure on himself that insomnia feels like his body telling him sleeping is irresponsible in a world where there is so much to fix.
Decision to Leave revolves around the fascinating dance between these two characters, a Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, who recognise on some-level they are kindred spirits. Both are quiet, dedicated observers of people. Both have the ability to zero in on details – its telling that Seo-rae is the only one who can help Hae-jun begin to crack his old cases and that Hae-jun is the only one who delights in every detail of Seo-rae’s careful, formal Korean. Neither are exhibitionists, both quest obsessively because they feel they must for others: Hae-jun for the victims of crimes, Seo-rae to reclaim the Korean land her grandfather had been forced to leave behind when he fled to China.
But yet… these are also people seemingly determined to manipulate and entrap each other. Sae-jae’s growing closeness with Hae-jun is also a way to get closer to the case, to follow Hae-jun’s progress and to nudge (or outright shove) it in certain directions. Her motives and decisions remain unclear. When they go on a tenderly chaste date to a Buddhist temple, is their connection and intimacy genuine for her, or is she ruthlessly playing a lonely man for advantage?
Because Hae-jun defines himself as a detective – after all, he will chase cases to the end long-after his bosses have demanded he file it. Decision to Leave explores how far this will affect Hae-jun: how far will he go to protect someone he suspects might be a killer? If he helps Seo-rae, how much would he grow to hate himself for doing it? Or to put it another way – is there a greater expression of love that a Holmes is capable of, than to help his Irene Adler get away with it?
These dizzying themes interweave with fascinatingly oblique motivations in this endlessly rewarding puzzle-box of a movie. It’s also clear to see the Vertigo parallels, as manipulators fall in love and stalkers try to shape people and events to meet their desires. It’s second act, set in Ipo, as the characters come back together after a time-jump is a brilliantly engaging dance between two people who might be deeply in love and might be doing their very best to manipulate each other. Here acts of love include reading seized phone call transcripts or draining a swimming pool of bloody water.
It’s extraordinarily shot by Park chan-wook – this is the sort of film that makes you want to run out and see everything else he’s ever made straight away. Decision to Leave is more classical and reserved than his other ‘cinema of cruelty’ films. But that isn’t to say it’s not crammed with endless inventive flair. Camera angles plumb every depth of imagination – from vertigo-inducing heights to shots that seem to place the camera inside phones, their graphics superimposed across the screen.
As Hae-jun imagines Seo-rae’s actions or stakes out her home, he is visually inserted into her memories or placed in the scene as a witness as he deduces how she may have killed her husband. As this dedicated, obsessive watcher – who can’t leave his fascination with the case alone – watches her home, Park suddenly places Hae-jun inside Seo-rae’s home, sitting alongside her on a sofa. Scenes replay from multiple angles to show us new perspectives, and the characters blur and switch roles as Seo-rae stakes out Hae-jun in Ipo, noticing how his smart shoes (not suitable for running) are in fact a sign of his collapse in confidence.
Decision to Leave gains hugely from Tang Wei and Park Hae-il’s superb performances. Tang Wei is utterly unreadable, her motives and emotions discernible moment-by-moment only in micro-clues – but by the film’s conclusion you feel you finally have an understanding of her tortured, confused emotions. Park Hae-il drips crumpled loneliness and sadness under a professional demeanour, his emotional vulnerability becoming more and more apparent, his job a fig leaf to give his life definition. The chastely, strangely innocent, intimacy between the two of them has profound emotional impact – this is a classic romance, about two people far closer than sex could make them.
Park’s direction of all this is perfectly paced – for a slight plot and an extended run-time, this feels like a film where not a moment is wasted. Like Vertigo every moment fits together into a complete whole which might only be understandable when you step back and look at. Visually, it’s a treat – inventive but not flashy, unique but not overbearing. And it builds a carefully modulated and deeply moving spiritual romance at its heart. It’s a beautiful slice of film noir, rung through with poetry. It’s a marvellous film.