In Park Chan-wook’s unlikely romance Decision to Leave, the Korean director again plays with genre to comment on dark national histories. By Anthony Carew.

Decision to Leave

Tang Wei (left) and Park Hae-il in Park Chan-wook’s film Decision to Leave.
Tang Wei (left) and Park Hae-il in Park Chan-wook’s film Decision to Leave.
Credit: MUBI

Park Chan-wook was a student protester and budding art critic in his early 20s when he first saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It was a formative experience: after the screening he met his future wife, founded a film society and decided to become a filmmaker.

In the nearly four decades since, Park has become one of South Korea’s most celebrated auteurs. He claims his 11th feature, Decision to Leave, isn’t directly inspired by Vertigo, but it’s easy to see trace elements of Hitchcock’s film throughout this surreal, lovelorn, colourful picture. A psychological mystery about dangerous obsession and romantic projection, it earns the adjective “Hitchcockian”, while being rich in the particular predilections of Park’s work.

Decision to Leave finds Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), a “dignified” Busan policeman, increasingly enthralled by Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the beautiful Chinese wife of a much older mountain climber. The husband has plunged to his death in mysterious circumstances and, largely because of her aloof behaviour, Seo-rae is considered a prime suspect. Hae-jun tails her, surveils her and becomes obsessed. His fascination sparks an unlikely love story that’s in turn charming, absurd and disturbing.

Seo-rae soon flips everything upside down: Hae-jun’s ordered life, the police investigation, the tropes of procedurals, any audience expectations. Rather than functioning as a simple femme fatale, she’s given equal weight and agency in the mercurial narrative. Not merely the object of obsession, she too grows obsessed. When the police watch her in stakeouts, she starts watching them. She stalks Hae-jun when he’s working other cases. She lets him know that she’s following him, and that she knows he’s following her.

There’s delight in how Park plays with genres and conventions, from buddy-cop comedy to melodrama, with various double-backs and feints along the way. This is in keeping with his shape-shifting oeuvre, in which black humour, brutal violence and social commentary seamlessly combine in ambitious movies.

This remains consistent across Park’s long and varied career. Decision to Leave marks his first film since 2016’s The Handmaiden, after which he directed the English-language television miniseries The Little Drummer Girl. He’s still best known for his 2003 film Oldboy, particularly for its notable action sequence in which the movie’s man-on-a-mission takes on a hallway full of 25 hoodlums with only a clawhammer.

Oldboy, with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), constituted Park’s “Vengeance Trilogy”, where he examines the impulse for payback and its perennial popularity in cinematic narrative. These films were less about vengeance than the failings and futility of seeking revenge. Culminating with a climactic scene in Lady Vengeance, in which characters debate whether to enact violence upon someone who caused them untold suffering, Park throws the desire for bloodlust back at the audience.

Here he was exploring the Korean concept of han, a complex notion that in part means “a resentment for unpunished injustices”. He also connected the yearning for retribution to a simmering national response to Korea’s history of being invaded, occupied and partitioned.

It’s a thread running through many of his films. Park’s breakout third feature, Joint Security Area (2000), was set in the DMZ between North and South Korea. The Handmaiden, his hyper-stylish adaptation of Sarah Waters’ English novel Fingersmith, transplanted the Victorian-era tale to the Japanese-occupied Korea of the early 20th century, its tale told in ever-shifting languages.

In Decision to Leave, class division – a favourite Park theme – is embodied in Seo- rae, an immigrant who humbly introduces herself by saying, “I’m Chinese, my Korean is insufficient.” Yet, it turns out that her grandfather was a member of the Korean Liberation Army in Manchuria and “fought the Japanese colonisers in the mid-1930s”, connecting the film, again, to deeper forces of history.

As with so many figures in Park movies, Seo-rae nurses old wounds and hopes that an act of vengeance will heal them. This foments a sense of tragedy that simmers beneath a slick surface of wry comedy and adds real ache to its poetic portrait of irregular lovers. For Park, people seeking revenge are trapped in the past. Here, our potential paramours are its prisoner, unable to move forward into a shared future.

This gives Park the opportunity to fold time, blurring the lines between present and past, moment and memory, told story and imagined visions, waking life and dreaming, the forensic and the fantastic. In a canny contemporary device, this is enabled by technology: smart phones and watches foster in-the-moment connection and, in turn, romance, but coldly encode our every move for posterity.

Plenty of his previous pictures (Joint Security Area, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, The Handmaiden) see Park visually marrying different time frames and perspectives, which he again achieves with Decision to Leave. When Hae-jun finds clues, works on theories or hears new testimony, he’s present in those moments with nary a dissolve to signify the temporal shift. Similarly, when he watches Seo-rae from a distance, he’s simultaneously in the room with her. This is depicted at times with theatrical effects, through lighting that draws the eye or sets that slide away. The meticulous frames contain contradictory ideas and house complex histories.

Park won the Cannes Film Festival’s best director award for Decision to Leave, and it’s easy to see why. Like his peer Bong Joon-ho, he is fastidious about storyboarding every shot of his films in advance. That attention to detail is seen on screen throughout Decision to Leave, chiefly in the inventive transitions and matching edits, the comic reveals and smash cuts. Park is a master of cross-cutting and parallel action, something on impressive display in both cop-movie chase scenes across Vertigo-inducing rooftops and sequences in which recounted scenarios come to life.

Park’s films are often works of meta-narrative, stories about storytelling spun by unreliable narrators with faulty memories and hidden agendas enacted by characters lost in confusion and misunderstandings. Hae-jun’s self-image as the fastidious, gentleman police officer comes undone, which throws his life into chaos and causes him to spiral out of control. He submits to being putty for an expert storyteller to shape: in Seo-rae’s hands, he’s willing to be manipulated, happy to inhabit his delusions and suspend his inhibitions.

This is, of course, how it feels to watch Decision to Leave, to be tangled in the artfulness of its spun yarn. Audiences are placing their trust in an ace storyteller, happy to fall victim to misdirection, reversal and thwarted expectations, safe in the knowledge that the oddball journey will ultimately result in a dramatic payoff. It’s a grand act of faith that, by the time the film hits its swelling climax, is well rewarded. 

Decision to Leave is playing in select Australian cinemas.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 22, 2022 as "Dangerous obsessions".

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