The Best Movies of the Year: Seeing Things We Shouldn't in Decision to Leave

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The Best Movies of the Year: Seeing Things We Shouldn't in <I>Decision to Leave</i>

Severed fingers on piano ivories, three flavors of incest across as many movies, a dog with a man’s face, fully-loaded cyborgs mowing down hospital nurses and orderlies, a water-logged child ghost, a slashed Achilles tendon billowing blood with the flow of a river: Park Chan-wook has delighted audiences with these grisly sights since stepping onto the world cinema stage with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), his fourth film and the first chapter in what has, over the years, come to be referred to as The Vengeance Trilogy—a ghastly title for gruesome images, traditionally staged in well-appointed rooms wrapped in fashionably patterned wallpaper.

In 2022, Park surrounds new grisly sights with a new roll of wallpaper in Decision to Leave, a neo-noir whodunit-cum-erotic thriller about a policeman gazing longingly at the woman he’s fallen madly in love, as she returns his gaze from the other side of the law. The man is Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a detective working sleepless nights in Busan. The woman is Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese emigrant whose husband, a retired immigration official and mountaineering enthusiast, took a fatal tumble while scaling one of his favorite peaks. At first, Hae-jun suspects Seo-rae of murder, though on admittedly flimsy grounds. But suspicion stirs infatuation; it doesn’t take a seasoned detective to note Seo-rae’s comeliness, and Hae-jun, in breathtakingly short order, starts staking out her apartment and fantasizing about joining her there.

If the synopsis cut there, Decision to Leave would still sound like a full-fledged Park film, because Hae-jun’s obsession with Seo-rae, regardless of her guilt or innocence, is indecorous enough to fuel a two-hour narrative sans further plot adjuncts. But the moment where Hae-jun starts crushing on Seo-rae is the moment where Seo-rae starts crushing back, and returns his surveillance to match. Evidence points to her husband’s death as a suicide. Hae-jun lets her go. But in a Park film, nothing’s so simple as mere physical self-destruction. From here, Decision to Leave morphs into a cat-and-mouse between Hae-jun, who tries to quit his ardor for Seo-rae to spare his sanity and save his marriage to his equally lovely wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun); and Seo-rae, who refuses to let Hae-jun go and, yes, might actually be a black widow.

Decision to Leave is Park at his best, though someone out there likely made a similar quip about The Handmaiden (2016), Stoker (2013), Thirst (2009); repeat, lather, rinse. What’s unique to Decision to Leave is the effect of accidental self-reflection: The film captures, then dramatizes, the sensation of watching a Park movie. To degrees, each of his films hinge on a hapless protagonist seeing something they shouldn’t see. Park’s voyeur kink is embedded deep in his movies’ nerve centers. In his world, there are—broadly speaking—either eyes watching everywhere or innocuous peepholes casually strewn about as bait for overly curious schmucks, who can’t help but take a look and sign the order of their own subsequent doom.

In Decision to Leave, the dynamic cuts across Park’s dual protagonists. Hae-joo, a cop, has an excuse for peeking behind the curtain of Seo-rae’s life: She may be guilty of knocking off her husband, and to reconcile that tricky “may,” Hae-joo is empowered to scour her personal history—which means looking where he should and not where he shouldn’t. But Park draws a line, thin though it is, where Hae-joo’s observation of Seo-rae becomes personal instead of professional: It’s in the moment when he notes her eating habits instead of her whereabouts; when he orders her a premium sushi box for dinner while interviewing her at the police station; when he imagines sitting in her apartment as she falls asleep, cigarette in hand; when he figuratively inserts himself into her life, picturing them together as if he isn’t a cop and she isn’t a potential killer. Soon, he doesn’t even have to picture: They visit a Buddhist temple on a date, hang out at one another’s homes, and grow emotionally intimate. Hae-joo’s fantasy edges closer toward reality with every passing moment where he allows himself to forget his job.

Seo-rae is free of Hae-joo’s bindings. She can do as she likes without needing to duck the ethical responsibilities police are supposed to uphold. Granted, she has laws to abide by, or skirt around, but for her the stakes feel lower than for Hae-joo. She’s saddled by fewer codes and mores. When she tails Hae-joo on a foot chase with G-goo (Hak-joo Lee), a suspect in a separate case, she gets ringside seats to the pair duking it out: G-goo armed with a knife, Hae-joo with a chainmail glove for defense. (Never let it be said that Park doesn’t know how to have a good time.) Again, this is something Seo-rae shouldn’t be seeing. But Hae-joo’s slugfest with G-goo puts Seo-rae over the top: She watches rapt with lust, knuckles to lips, eyes narrowing at the overt display of testosterone. It’s not as if Hae-joo beats G-goo as a display of male dominance. He’s simply performing a brutal, necessary function of his duties as a lawman. But Seo-rae doesn’t care. She’s hooked.

That’s us, the audience, with any Park movie, similarly lured into his work by the lurid spectacle. Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) practicing casual dentistry on Mr. Park (Oh Dal-su) in Oldboy; India (Mia Wasikowska) masturbating in the shower, replaying the memory of her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) snapping the neck of her would-be rapist Whip (Alden Ehrenreich) with a smile, in Stoker; Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) discovering a cache of snuff tapes belonging to her ex-partner in crime and current object of wrath, Mr. Baek (also Choi), his victims terrified little kids no older than five, in Lady Vengeance; Hideko’s (Kim Min-hee) childhood spent being groomed and trained to recite pornography for a male audience by her lecherous uncle Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong) in The Handmaiden.

Just like the observation mechanics that drive Seo-rae and Hae-joo’s harebrained courtship, this particular theme of Park’s work cuts both ways, from us to his protagonists. We watch these tawdry moments unfold, where characters likewise watch or absorb events, actions, or materia they’d be better off without. Artistic shock value is key to any Park movie, part of the reason we pay the price of admission and a recurring motif long-agreed on by his critics. But Decision to Leave actualizes that experience on screen where Park’s previous movies don’t. Even his greatest previous movies, like Oldboy and The Handmaiden, focus simply on the forbidden and the taboo without making broad meta commentary on either; they don’t communicate with the audience and validate their viewing experience. Whether Park means to or not, his aesthetic choices—split screening Hae-joo and Seo-rae, blinking Hae-joo into Seo-rae’s space like an apparition, carefully orchestrating one staking out the other and then vice versa—visually represent what makes his movies work. What has made them work since the beginning.

Just a year prior to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Park turned heads with Joint Security Area, a movie that so vastly outshone his debut feature and sophomore follow-up, The Moon Is… the Sun’s Dream (1992) and Trio (1997), that they’ve both fallen to abject neglect by time and critics ever since. The effect is that Joint Security Area is typically spoken of as if it’s his first movie rather than his third. In this cherry-picked hierarchy, the leap from 2000 to 2001, from an espionage thriller to a bloody Greek tragedy, is startling. But Joint Security Area, a bounce house of people walking into situations they’re not meant to witness, planted this idea before Park solidified his reputation as an outré auteur. An officer from the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission heads to the DMZ to gumshoe her way to the truth about a firefight between South Korean and North Korean soldiers in a North Korean border station; in the end we learn of a Mexican standoff, an accidental pistol discharge, and a heartbreaking end to camaraderie forbidden by nationalism. The film grieves the separation of North and South Korea, steeped in awful reality.

Decision to Leave departs reality, but remains no less tragic: Here, Park recycles the wrong place, wrong time structure that’s given his movies housing since the turn of the century, then adds “wrong person” to his old blueprint. Hae-joo and Seo-rae don’t merely see something they shouldn’t; they see someone they shouldn’t. Their entanglement is their downfall—what they see in each other rather than what they see out in the world. The whole affair ends in tears, as these things tend to, but their star-crossed undoing sums to a perfect statement about how Park has kept drawing us into his movies after 20 years of making them.


Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.