The body of a hiker is found at the base of a mountain near a rural town. It seems to be a simple open-and-shut case, a ghastly accident. Yet a world-weary but dedicated detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) cannot let go of the feeling that the hiker’s widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is somehow involved in her husband’s death. Aside from setting-specific details, this is the setup of many a noir, and indeed, it is easy to see Decision to Leave in a long tradition of not only noir movies but also director Park Chan-wook’s own filmography, which has often dealt with stories with multiple layers and twists that are slowly but deliberately peeled back to reveal an often unexpected resolution.
Decision to Leave’s genius is that it seems to set up a story that we believe is predictable. We are convinced that we are ahead of the detective and that we know exactly what Seo-rae’s intentions are. Hae-jun is less of a Sherlock Holmes, cracking impossible cases with the bare minimum of clues, and more of a Sam Spade, whose dogged pursuit of the unequivocal truth is his best quality. Even when the relationship between Hae-jun and Seo-rae becomes more complicated (not least because Hae-jun is already married), we believe we know how everything will work out between them.
Yet Decision to Leave manages to pull the rug out from under us constantly, not just in terms of story, but in tone and intention. We can see the change taking place in front of our own eyes, but, just like the detective, we refuse to acknowledge what is right in front of our faces – that what we are watching is not just a crime story but also a love story. And not even a love story like what we expect. The attraction is not just carnal but spiritual as well, and the best filmmaking in the film is in how Park develops the relationship between the detective and the widow to almost mythic levels. Even the constant use of technology, such as smartphones and other devices, actually add to the mystery of this story as Park and the screenplay show how our constant access to many forms of communication belies its deceptive nature and the many opportunities to project one’s own prejudices onto seemingly clear-cut material.
Speaking of the screenplay, though Park is perhaps most well-known for his earlier “vengeance” trilogy, most notably the grotesquely operatic Oldboy, Park’s work has improved even beyond those early seminal works. The fairly obvious X-factor in his films has been screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyung, who started working with Park ever since Lady Vengeance. Not coincidentally, Lady Vengeance featured a complex, flawed, yet compelling female lead. Though Park’s films before Lady Vengeance featured great performances from the likes of Kang Hye-jung (Oldboy) and Bae Doona (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), on paper, those roles fall into the stereotype of women as catalysts for the male protagonist’s development. But in Park’s collaborations with Jeong, his films would not only feature interesting female characters, which would be catnip for actresses ranging from Nicole Kidman to Kim Min-hee, but also a deeper awareness of the complex dynamics of a wide variety of relationships, whether it is forbidden love in The Handmaiden or the deadly intimacy of parent-child relations in Stoker.
Park is a formidable filmmaker, but serious, unselfish collaboration works in his favor as it does with many directors. For example, the director’s cut for The Handmaiden almost loses control of its tone with scenes that are too distractingly comic, even in a film full of humor. Directors are hardly the sole authors of the work that is credited to them as much as auteur theory would like us to believe. Along with Jeong, his most important collaborator for Decision to Leave has to be Tang Wei. Tang has been great ever since Lust Caution, her first role, which would define her career in both negative and positive ways. Her ability to show internal conflict without giving away her hand was apparent 15 years ago in that film. In this film, she may play the so-called femme fatale but her character is far more than that tired trope. Her main charm is not her beauty, though she is clearly beautiful, or any sort of obvious sex appeal, but rather her sympathy. Her ability to listen and be present, even as she has ulterior motives, is her subtle weapon. The detective is attracted to her, or rather an image that he has of her, and Seo-rae knows it. She lets both the detective and the audience project what they want on her, and even if we are aware of the manipulation, the emotional depth that arises from her performance is surprising yet satisfying in its revelation.
Decision to Leave is a con movie, but it is perhaps the gentlest con movie ever. It takes the audience into its confidence (what con is actually short for) and lets us think that we know exactly how this story will all play out and then proceeds to unravel our theories and perceptions of this film thread by thread. Much like the film’s couple does to each other, Decision to Leave breaks down our barriers and invites into a story that seems familiar but is strikingly different and moving. Though there is murder and violence, we are left with a poignant sadness and a real appreciation of the unique kind of tale that Park and his collaborators have been able to weave for us.