If you’ve seen director Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, perhaps you get why his name might strike fear into my heart, because I can never unsee that film nor unfeel the Grand Guignol trauma I carried for days after. (I can’t think of a single reason to seek out Spike Lee’s remake, and pray no one ever makes an all-ages cartoon prequel called Oldbaby.) I’ve been afraid to watch any of Park’s other films until now. His latest, the crime-drama romance Decision to Leave, likewise follows broken souls careening off each other amidst secrets and death, but is far more interested in examining the emotional contents of two hearts than in spatchcocking them.
Once upon a time in Busan, a retired immigration inspector (Seung-mok Yoo, who had minor roles in Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and The Host) plummets from the top of his favorite mountain, which he enjoyed scaling so often that he filmed an entire video about how he would pace every ascent to the tune of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Because every unwitnessed death requires a police investigation according to The Rules, enter homicide detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il, the creepy Memories of Murder suspect with the soft hands) to review the scene of the possible crime. At first glance, the decedent’s belongings and trail of remnants reveal nothing untoward. Sometimes a guy falling off a mountain is just a guy falling off a mountain.
Per crime drama procedure, his much younger wife is first in line for an interview. In fact, she’s the only one in line to be interviewed. Tang Wei (star of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution) is the widow Seo-rae, a Chinese immigrant whose Korean is limited and halting at times. Park declines to subtitle most of her Chinese dialogue — sometimes she restates what she just said, but for longer outbursts she speaks into a phone app and lets it translate aloud for her. Thus the non-Chinese-speaking audience learns what she’s just said at the same time Hae-jun does. In that sense, we’re kept on equal footing with him at first, only to race ahead of him later when we become more aware of his surroundings than he is.
She cooperates without hesitation, but the police find it odd that her response to the initial news and the subsequent questions are without overt grief. More concerning, her body is a canvas of abuse — bruises, scratches, even her late husband’s initials tattooed on her stomach, as if she were a collectible he kept in a vitrine like a vintage Sheriff Woody doll. She arguably has a motive for murder…but in her day job as a visiting caregiver nurse for the elderly, keeping people alive is what she does best. Like her husband she’s always loved mountains in her own way since childhood…but she’s afraid of heights, so placing her at the scene is challenging. She seems to be the sole person of interest in the case…but she doesn’t engage in the slightest trace of clichéd femme-fatale flirting, husky-voiced alluring, shimmying in expensive lingerie, hiring the detective herself to deflect blame, or indulging in the sort of performative smoking that drives movie lawmen wild. (She does smoke, but plainly without an ornate cigarette holder from the Film Noir Tobacco Shop.) The question looms: is this even a murder case?
Naturally it doesn’t help that Detective Hae-jun falls for her, through no effort of her own. Whether he thinks her awkward Korean is cute, her innocent gaze is adorable, he’s been seized by a white-knight impulse, or what, but he starts spending too much time a stakeout near her, which soon transitions to in-person hangouts. Naturally as these things go, he’s also a married man. His wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun from the Train to Busan sequel Peninsula) is a nuclear engineer and numbers geek who’s counted off every one of the sixteen years and eight months they’ve been together, through thick and thin, which has included his longtime bouts of apparent insomnia and the ordeal that likely ensued when he quit smoking. (One of the best details Park nails is when, after a night of cooking Chinese poorly with Seo-rae, Hae-jun returns home nonchalantly, unaware that he’s absolutely reeking of cigarette smoke. To nonsmokers like Jung-an and me, that cloying stench isn’t something you can dispel just by opening the car window on your drive home. A nonsmoker can tell within milliseconds when someone’s either been smoking or hanging around with a smoker in a tight space.)
Our Hero’s newfound mannish giddiness gets tempered when he learns of another curious death in his quarry’s past. She doesn’t shy away from the topic when it’s broached, but the idea of any kind of precedent in her life threatens to shatter the rose-colored glasses he doesn’t realize he’s put on. Again, she isn’t baiting him into any cunning traps…but she isn’t slapping him or tattling on him to Jung-an, either. Innocent or not, sometimes we enjoy being desired, especially in our more fragile moments. As Wang Wei’s inscrutably “nice” facade falters and her features shift in ever-escalating turmoil, Park Hae-il’s world-weary demeanor softens into vulnerable schoolboy plaintiveness, the two of them passing each other on the emotional spectrum and meeting for a time ever-so-longingly in the middle.
Hae-jun’s infatuation becomes obsession, which veers off into other avenues as Park sharply pivots the film toward its second half. A change of location, an influx of new characters, and another crime or two further complicate the narrative deeply in the valley of spoiler territory. Blood is spilled, another mountain is ascended, pits are dwelt in, and 21st-century tech hides as many mysteries as it reveals. Is Seo-rae doomed to be hemmed in by every male around her, a bona fide Black Widow waiting for her Forensic Files close-up? Is Detective Hae-jun really prepared to chuck his entire life over his midlife crisis feels? Is the connection between them a doomed romance or a cat-and-mouse game? Why not both?
As a prude with a peculiar relationship history, I tend to be unapologetically impatient with adulterous main characters, especially when the film seems to be taking their side despite their betrayals. Consequently most folks were far more tolerant of The English Patient and Out of Africa than I was — in both cases I glowered at the TV and actively rooted for the Furies to swoop down and bring doom. Park lets his characters follow their hearts, but refuses to shield them from the consequences of their sins. At no point does he escort us gently by the elbow into a storybook finale. Through judiciously complex editing, keeping events in order by revelation rather than by strict chronology, and visually pairing messengers and recipients in the same room when they physically aren’t — whether calling each other from afar, listening to recordings after the fact, or wandering each other’s memories metaphorically in person — the film’s puzzle-box design invites the logical mind to sort through the clues and red herrings, distracting us with the shininess of Occam’s Razor as we slice and splice the comfortable tropes of past murder mysteries, little noticing Park has tied their heartstrings around our shoelaces and stepped back to watch us trip over ourselves.
We modern moviegoers are too used to taking controlled jumps to our conclusions. We’re prone to easy hops off our tiny dunes of seen-it-all reasoning. Decision to Leave would rather push us off a higher height toward a different kind of painful stop. Our point of impact lies between two potential extremes, which Hae-jun and Seo-rae discuss in one interrogation: the cynic who looks at multiple deaths and sneers with irony, “Wow, what a coincidence,” and the less jaded naif who pines, “Wow, what a poor woman.” The decisions that ultimately distance them will linger longer than any flashy Oldboy stab wound.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: If you stream far more South Korean programming than I do (I try, but there’re so many entertainment options today), you might or might not recognize small parts for Jung Yi-seo (Parasite‘s pizza shop owner) and Jeong Ha-dam (Netflix’s Sweet Home, which has been in my queue for a while now).
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Decision to Leave end credits, but viewers who stick around are treated to a cover of “The Mist”, an old tune that Park cites as one of the film’s major influences and which two of the characters keep on repeat on their phone(s).