This article appeared in the October 20, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Read more of our coverage of the 60th New York Film Festival here.
Unsolved Mysteries (Park Chan-wook, 2022)
In a talk at the 60th New York Film Festival, director Park Chan-wook described how audiences reliably laugh when he refers to his movies as romances. No one could miss the love story at the center of his latest film, Decision to Leave, but its romanticism also lies in the intoxicating brio of its style. There is something seductive about the way the twists of the convoluted police-procedural plot unfurl in a baffling yet beguiling striptease of hints, tricks, and revelations. This narrative élan freshens what could be a stale premise—an insomniac detective’s obsession with a mysterious female suspect—and the film’s slick, meticulous craftsmanship and comic fizz gain ballast from an emotional core of remarkable heft. Park, winner of this year’s Best Director prize at Cannes, dials down the on-screen brutality for which his work has hitherto been known to lay bare the violence of emotions: even a fugitive thug, cornered by a cop, announces that his life is empty without the woman for whom he killed.
Surprisingly, Decision to Leave’s classicism fits comfortably within a contemporary setting. The film’s characters are inseparable from their smartphones, as if the devices are their external souls. The plot follows a breadcrumb trail of video and audio recordings, iPhone passwords, missed calls, tracking apps, and step-counters. The characters communicate through text messages and translation apps; alone, they brood over digital photos, voice memos, and atmospheric ballads cued up by Siri. How do these technologies, now inextricably woven into the fabric of life, change the stories we tell? Maybe not that much, Decision to Leave suggests. Home movies and digital archives may have assumed the place of our memories (a development tracked by other New York Film Festival offerings this year such as Aftersun, Saint Omer, and The Eternal Daughter), and instant communication and surveillance may change the mechanics of plots, but the human mind and heart still keep their secrets.
Events are set in motion by a fatal plunge from a high place—the first of many small tributes Decision to Leave pays to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). A middle-aged solo rock-climber falls to his death from a towering outcrop of stone, apparently by accident. When the man’s much-younger wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), fails to show proper shock and grief, the detectives on the case debate whether this justifies suspecting her; their suspicions only seem to be deepened by the fact that she is a beautiful Chinese immigrant abused by her husband, whose monogram, engraved on his fancy hiking gear, is also tattooed on her abdomen. Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), a conscientious, sleep-deprived police detective, is sympathetic to Seo-rae but embarks on a stakeout, perhaps motivated by his attraction to her as much as any hunch about her possible guilt. Like the cop surveilling Kim Novak in Richard Quine’s Pushover (1954), he spends hours peering through windows with binoculars at an idle woman adrift in sadness. But Seo-rae also turns the tables, covertly following the detective, gawking with evident pleasure as he duels with a knife-wielding criminal, and slyly photographing him asleep in his car outside her building.
Surveillance scenes add a layer of self-awareness to movie-viewing, as we watch someone watching, listen to someone eavesdropping. The complexities can be ethical, emotional, or a tangle of the two. Decision to Leave further complicates matters with a quicksilver visual style that makes fantasy as solid as reality. Hae-joon’s thoughts come alive on screen: when he gazes through binoculars at Seo-rae, he appears in the room, close enough to touch her, and when he imagines a crime she may have committed, it plays out as a real flashback (or does it?). Their relationship develops through interrogations that are watched through a plate-glass window by other officers and then rewatched on computer screens. Visiting the detective’s apartment, Seo-rae discovers a mosaic of pictures of herself and her dead husband among the grisly images covering a wall devoted to his unsolved cases. Cop and suspect look through the photographs together and comment on them as though appraising vacation snapshots. Later, they share a pair of earbuds and listen to the audio diary of his stakeouts of her home. They seem at times to be observers of their own story, wryly conscious of the familiar roles they inhabit: the riddling femme fatale, the haunted detective.
But Park never reduces them to types. The film regards them with the patient attentiveness of an investigator, or a lover, minutely observing their behavior and fetishistically dwelling on details—crow’s feathers, calloused fingers, glistening pills. Seo-rae mesmerizes like a prism that keeps turning to show different facets: gentle, wistful, sharp-witted, seductive, conniving, traumatized. Tang (who played another cryptic, alluring woman in a green dress in Bi Gan’s 2018 noir fantasia Long Day’s Journey into Night) is so subtly expressive that she is convincing one moment as a manipulative, remorseless serial killer and the next as a kind caregiver who has bad luck with men. The more we learn about Seo-rae, the more ambiguous she becomes. When she buries a crow killed by her cat, or puts Hae-joon to sleep with a meditation about sinking into the ocean like a jellyfish, the compassionate and bewitchingly dangerous sides of her character mesh together seamlessly.
The room in which she lulls Hae-joon to sleep is submerged in eerie green light. More echoes of Vertigo: parts of the film are set in Ipo, an area known for its mists and seaside fog; a rooftop chase ends with yet another man falling to his death; the detective encounters his dream woman twice, the second time a cruel parody of the first. Like Hitchcock, Park nearly always has a glint of humor in his camera-eye, and star Park Hae-il matches him by deftly leavening his brooding melancholy with moments of goofiness. Much of the comedy revolves around food: Hae-joon’s changing attitude toward Seo-rae is wittily illustrated by the quality of lunches he buys for her when she is under interrogation. The detective’s chirpily awful wife, whom he sees only on weekends, constantly spouts statistics about wellness. While she fixates on the health benefits of pomegranates, green-turtle extract, and intercourse, the sexy Seo-rae smokes cigarettes and eats ice cream for dinner, alone in front of the TV. In spite of their ever-present smartphones, she and the detective are drawn together by a shared quality of being slightly out of time. Their happiest interlude is a visit to an old temple in the rain, where Seo-rae, who binges on Korean historical dramas, tells Hae-joon that she likes him because he is “dignified, for a modern person.” There is indeed something refreshingly old-fashioned about an honorable hero shattered by the betrayal of his principles, and a romance whose chaste longing is consummated by a single kiss.
Seo-rae claims that her Korean is inadequate, and sometimes she switches to speaking Chinese into her phone, which interprets her words in a neutral, Korean male voice. In this way she recounts the nightmarish ordeal she endured being smuggled into the country in a shipping container, the machine-enabled translation only drawing attention to what is untranslatable about such an experience. Technology promises connection and information; people clutch their phones as totems against being lost, against losing things, against not knowing, against being alone. Like any addictive substance, the devices rouse a hunger they can never satisfy.
In the latter part of the film, Hae-joon retreats from urban Busan to the backwater of Ipo, only to have Seo-rae reappear in connection with another killing. He keeps demanding to know why she moved to his new district, and she finally replies, “Maybe I came to Ipo to become one of your unsolved cases.” She knows that nothing has a more enduring hold than what is unfulfilled: we all keep shrines to the unresolved mysteries in our lives, the cold cases that can be stirred up by an image, an echo. The irresistible pull of what can’t be found or known surges through the film’s magnificent ending, as everything dissolves amid ebbing light and swirling waters. All the evidence and explanations are swept away as the sun drowns in the rising sea.
Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. She has written for The Criterion Collection and elsewhere, and wrote the Phantom Light column for Film Comment.