Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Decision to Leave (2022) by Park Chan-wook

The femme fatale of permanence


Park Chan-wook has never been a man whose works shied away from Hitchcock’s influence. After thirty even years of filmmaking, Park still is able to finesse a plot twist that leaves a lasting, wicked effect on the viewer and characters. If Stoker is a distant relative of Shadow of a Doubt, then Decision to Leave is a generational descendant of one of Hitchcock’s favorite devices, the Icy Blonde. Instead of a singular, perilous entity often described as the femme fatale, Park splinters the concept into particulates that permeate the air that we breathe and seep into our dreams at night, entwining obsession and instinct together. We are supposed to feel a judicial satisfaction when characters of malicious intent leave in handcuffs, but in his usual fashion, Park convinces us that his femmes fatales are the ones we long for when they inhabit our psyche.

The prey in Decision to Leave is Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a homicide detective that works in Busan during the workweek and returns to his wife in the sleepy town of Ipo, completing a placid cycle of civic and marital duty. Due to his consistent stakeouts, Hae-jun has persistent insomnia (though he’d say he does stakeouts because he can’t sleep) and often lubricates his eyes right before an on-scene investigation. Running in his professional periphery is a murderer on the loose, but his sleep debt is further exacerbated by the suspicious falling death of a wealthy rock climber. The climber’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei) visits the detective during the autopsy. With a wordless gaze, Hae-jun is immediately transfixed.

Doesn’t a detective’s obsession make sense, especially towards a suspect? The attraction might be out of professional pocket, but the observations that intrigue him from the beginning, such as her Chinese heritage (Seo-rae will introduce herself as being Chinese with “not very good Korean” and will speak directly to her smart watch for real-time translations of specific phrases) and how she spends her time alone, morph into a conviction of her innocence despite his partner’s accusations. In knowing the idiosyncrasies of a person’s existence when they’re alone and connecting them to their perceived exterior/interior, one might confound the knowledge of intimacy with the notion of falling in love.
The fact of matter is that Park has had femmes fatales in the past, such as Hideko in The Handmaiden and Tae-ju in Thirst. The longstanding effect of such a character, however, is partially through their unwavering loyalty to what is right — lawfully reprehensible, morally equitable. Seo-rae unabashedly reveals bruises on her body and a branded burn of her late husband’s initials during an interrogation, as if goading the idea that his death was somehow warranted. Even her words are sometimes sharpened before the knife fight. “If someone had told me a woman had two husbands murdered, I’d think, ‘Oh, what’s a coincidence,'” Hae-jun interrogates after her second husband is found dead. “I’d think, ‘Oh, what a poor woman,'” Seo-rae calmly retaliates. The game of cat-and-mouse is the most popular game to describe the relationship between a detective and suspect of equal skill and intelligence; for Hae-jun and Seo-rae, their love game is akin to a long chase on shadowy, uncertain terrains.

Admittedly, one might not find the tongue-cutting charm of Park’s other works in Decision to Leave, but the film presents a different emotion for us to taste-test: the sort of romantic sweetness that makes us want to rip the skin off our face in devastation. The dizzying views of nature — the aerial shots of the mountain to the stillness of the sun — in conjunction to this love story persuades us to believe that this emotion is natural, even if it feels wrong. It’s a love story in the same way that Hideko and Tae-ju fall in love despite their circumstances, but Park gives the opportunity to immortalize the actions and motives of femmes fatales in cinema to be as damning and mystifying as scorn goddesses who walk among monsters. Tang Wei’s performance as Seo-rae is a kaleidoscope of romance, menace, and vulnerability that deduces a sad conclusion: love is not a pure procedure. We will still follow them into the dark, hoping that the light at the end of the tunnel is salvation. Instead, it feels intoxicating.

Decision to Leave
dir. Park Chan-wook
138 min.

Opens Friday, 10/21 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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