Review: Decision to Leave

Though it feels timeless, the narrative concept of the femme fatale seems peculiarly suited for the movies, and many film enthusiasts will probably locate its peak utilization during the heyday of Hollywood in the 40s and 50s in works like Double Indemnity and Vertigo, crime thrillers that almost doubled as Greek tragedies. Nowadays, the idea of the femme fatale, the woman who brings down a good-but-flawed man, may seem dated and perhaps sexist to some, and yet the dramatic appeal remains inescapable as evidenced by Park Chan-wook’s delirously enticing Decision to Leave. Park and his co-scenarist, Jeong Seo-kyeong, have created a pair of would-be lovers to rival any in cinematic history. Kim Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is the ultimate obsessive police detective, the kind of guy who can’t function properly unless he has a murder to solve, approaching his often grisly task as a kind of ecstatic vocation. Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is the ultimate seductive murder suspect, cooperative but cold initially, yielding but opaque eventually. 

The two are brought together by the death of Seo-rae’s husband (Yoo Seung-mok), who fell off a cliff while doing what he loves best, climbing mountains by himself. Was it an accident? A suicide? To Hae-joon’s younger, clumsier partner, it was murder, and Seo-rae is almost immediately the likely killer in his eyes, since she demonstrates no sense of grief over her husband’s death. Because he is analytical by nature, Hae-joon is less certain. Seo-rae is much younger than her husband, a retired immigration official whom she married after she was caught trying to enter South Korea illegally from China. A vital theme is Seo-rae’s incomplete command of Korean, which gives her a certain dispensation for verbal slips that Park exploits fully to advance the mystery component: Hae-joon’s initial attraction to Seo-rae is compounded by his biased conclusions regarding her innocence. This motivation is deepened by a rich array of contextual elements, including Hae-joon’s precarious marital situation (for her job his wife lives in a different town that he visits only on the weekends), a parallel murder case whose romantic underpinnings echo his feelings, and his chronic insomnia, which is aggravated by stress brought on by too much self-doubt. But the femme fatale aspects of the movie really come into their own in the second, more convoluted half of the story, when it is Seo-rae’s motivations that are examined, turning everything on its head.

As with the best noirs, Decision to Leave reserves the right to keep the viewer in the dark, even at the end, and Park’s mastery of visual indirection and comic sidelining makes it impossible to guess where the story is going while at the same time intensifying the viewer’s investment in the characters. Femme fatales are characterized as being initially devious for selfish purposes and ultimately tragic when their machinations inadvertently lead them to love. Park’s reinvention of this formula is a mutual romantic obsession that literally can’t survive outside the police-suspect dynamic. These are two people who can never be satisfied without the push-pull of suspicion and betrayal. It’s about being “wanted” in all idiomatic iterations of the word.

In Korean and Mandarin. Opens Feb. 17 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264), Toho Cinema Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Decision to Leave home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2022 CJ ENM Co., Ltd., Moho Film

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