Decision to Leave (2022)

An elaborate romantic mystery where the suspect herself is object of obsession


6/30/20234 min read

Tang Wei and Park Hae-il in 'decision to Leave'
Tang Wei and Park Hae-il in 'decision to Leave'

South Korea, 139 minutes

Director : Park Chan-wook

Cast : Tang Wei, Park Hae-il, Lee Jung-hyun, Go Kyung-pyo

Awards: Won, Best Director, and Nominated for Palme d’Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2022; Nominated for Best Motion Picture, Foreign language, Golden Globe Awards, 2023; Nominations, Best Film not in English Language and Best Director, BAFTA Awards, 2023; Nominee FIPRESCI Prize, Best Foreign Language Film, Palm Springs International Film Festival, 2023

This is a deep film, which escalates and moves at so many levels. A non-Korean, I think, would need to see it twice to comprehend it fully. Decision to leave can be best described as an elaborate romantic mystery. The story starts in Busan with a death investigation conducted by police detective, Jang Hae- jun (Park Hae-il), a patient of insomnia. The deceased is a retired immigration officer, Ki Do Soo who is an avid mountain climber and has apparently died by falling off the mountain. He and his partner, Soo Wan (Go Kyung-pyo) interview Ki Do Soo’s much younger wife, Seo-Rae (Tang Wei) who turns out to be a Chinese immigrant. She is suspected because she doesn’t seem sad at her husband’s death and injury marks on her body. In a brilliant sequence, the police officer visits the suspect and the scene is kept dialogue-less as the officer observes more and listens less, or rather is completely ignorant of what she says.

The detective starts following her and discovers that she works as a ‘caregiver’ for lady senior citizens. He stations himself outside her apartment at night and keeps watch when she works during daytime too. At one of the questioning sessions at police station, it is revealed that she has killed her mother. However, it emerges that her mother was terminally ill and Seo- Rae had administered her Fentanyl pills on her mother’s request only.

Later, Seo Rae gives the detective letters supposedly written by her husband admitting of his corrupt practices which he has signed. After few days, it is concluded that Ki Do Soo’s death was suicide and Seo-Rae is no longer the suspect. During this investigation, though, Hae-jun comes closer to Seo Rae and they both visit each other’s homes. On one of her visits to Hae-jun’s apartment, where he lives alone, since his wife works at Ipo, She finds various cases’ pictures on a wall hidden by curtain. She burns the photographs pertaining to her case, ostensibly to cure the detective of his insomnia, reasoning that these pictures are his main source of insomnia.

Once Hae-jun replaces Seo Rae for a day and visits her Monday’s client. This opens a pandora’s box when Hae-jun discovers three things- that the old lady and Seo-rae shared same model of mobile phone, that she had climbed 138 flight steps on Monday and lately, Seo-rae's hands and fingers were more rough, even rough than that of detective’s. The death of Ki Do-Soo had also occurred on a Monday! This discovery convinces Hae-jun of Seo Rae’s crime of climbing from other side of the cliff and pushing Ki Do Soo off the cliff. He is so ‘shattered’- a phrase he uses to tell Seo-Rae when he confronts her, that he decides to leave Busan but also tells her to throw the phone into the sea, indicating that he is not re-opening the investigation.

Hae-jun gets transferred to Ipo where his wife is working. Thirteen months later, Hae-jun and his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung Hyun) accidently meet Seo-Rae and her new husband, Im Ho-shin, (Park Yong Woo) who is a business investor at a fish market in Ipo. Next day, Im Ho-shin is found head, stabbed 17 times at his mansion’s swimming pool. This again brings Seo Rae into suspicion and entire circus begins again. However, this time the killer is found and is a Chinese man, nicknamed ‘Slappy’ whose mother’s savings were squandered by Im Ho-shin. This murder investigation however at one point makes Hae-jun’s wife suspect him and leave him.

The detective tries to get in touch with Seo –Rae who disappears near a beach. The climax, therefore is slightly surprising which I am not revealing here.

The narrative of the film is gripping and despite a longish duration of 138 minutes, you do not feel bored at any time due to fast paced and unconventional approach of the filmmaker. The flashback scenes which unlocks mystery or thought process of the detective are filmed with so much panache and finesse that you marvel at the conceptualization and attention to detail. No doubt, being a murder mystery, details are an important part, yet there are so many dynamic parts that the thoroughness of script baffles you. At least, it impressed me a lot. Rarely, I have seen such an inventive use of the camera. Cinematography is extremely meaningful and suggestive, suggestive in a more pre-emptive sense. ‘Decision to Leave’ is delight to watch because of the whole new cinematic approach of tackling romantic mysteries.

About the director, Park Chan-wook

Born in August of 1963, in Seoul, Park is a former film critic who now is director, screenwriter and producer too. While studying Philosphy in Sogang University he started a film group called ‘Sogang Film community’ and published a few articles on contemporary cinema.

His journey in active filmmaking started with assisting filmmakers Yu Yeong-jin for the film ‘Kkamdong’ and Kwak Jae-yong for the film ‘Watercolour painting in a rainy day’. His first independent feature was made in 1992, titled ‘The Moon is…the Sun’s Dream’. But his success came with his fourth film, ‘Joint Security Area’ made in 2000 which did good business and was praised by critics as well.

For his film ‘Oldboy’, which deals with the consequences of vengeance, Park won Grand Prix award, the second highest honour after Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, 2004. His three films, ‘Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance’ (2002), Old boy’ (2003) and ‘Lady Vengeance’ (2005) are unofficially called 'Vengeance trilogy' by critics.

Park was also jury member of lot of film festivals including Venice Film Festival. He made his debut English language Film, ‘Stoker’ in 2013.