“Decision to Leave” is a philosophical South Korean neo-noir film where a femme fatale and a sensitive detective blur gender roles and entangle in a complex love story, ultimately leading to a mysterious ending with questions of liberation and personal choices.
A Modern Noir-Romantic Tale
In the latest creation from South Korea’s philosophical director, Park Chan-wook, “Decision to Leave” emerges as a modern noir-romantic tale. As a film critic aspiring to continue his career, Chan-wook finds himself drawn to becoming a director after watching Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (1958), leaving indelible traces of this transformative film in his latest work. He skillfully intertwines a clichéd detective story with a love narrative, reminiscent of “Vertigo,” where the narrative unfolds in elevated settings such as mountains and rooftops. The role of these locations becomes crucial in understanding the characters. Positioned within the neo-noir genre, this film revolves around the love story between a femme fatale and a detective.
Park Chan-wook describes “Decision to Leave” as an unconventional love story where the words “I love you” remain unspoken. He also aims to create a police officer devoid of the typical harshness often seen in law and order-themed films. Detective Jang Hae-Joon (Park Hae-il) portrays a homme fragile, a fragile and sensitive man, distancing himself from the classic hero archetype. On the other hand, Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) embodies the essence of a femme fatale, effectively blurring the lines of gender roles. Hae-Joon resembles a character found in romantic literature, where women appear strong, pragmatic, and at times practical, much like Seo-Rae, while men exhibit sensitivity and emotional depth. In a Confucian context, the words “The wise love water, the good love mountains. The wise are active, the good are tranquil. The wise are joyful, the good enjoy long life.” resonate between Seo-Rae and Hae-Joon. Within a heteronormative framework, mountains symbolize masculinity, while water represents femininity. Masculine traits align with the rigidity and stillness of mountains, while femininity relates to the fluidity, dynamism, and motion of water.
Intangible Love and Cyclic Roles
The first 15 minutes of the film serve as a prequel of sorts, offering various hints about the rest of the story through the characters. Seo-Rae is seen as the main suspect in her husband’s death, while Detective Hae-Joon follows her life and actions not just as a detective but as a lover. Seo-Rae meticulously dissects her own life, immersing herself in an anatomical report that she later incorporates into her being. This integration occurs only to the extent that Seo-Rae permits, making the film essentially about the intangible. Instead of pursuing evidence and clues, Hae-Joon finds himself tracing the traces of Seo-Rae’s life—handing her the ashtray when she falls asleep while smoking, listening from afar as she sings to a stray cat like a wild animal. He becomes a lover who exists in essence, desiring to be present but never truly being.
Hae-Joon constantly ponders whether Seo-Rae has involved him in a game of love to escape her crimes. Love is an incessant search for proof, revealing how the roles of culprit and detective cyclically intertwine in relationships. However, in this relationship, the dynamics of the detective and culprit roles are in a state of transition, surpassing traditional heteronormative dynamics. Hae-Joon and Seo-Rae are neither purely feminine nor purely masculine. The power of the waves of water erodes the rocks of the mountain, while at times, stones and soils detached from the mountain merge with the water, muddying it. Seo-Rae is, in a sense, like Schrödinger’s cat inside a closed box. Until the box is opened, it is uncertain whether Seo-Rae is guilty. Both possibilities exist, and Hae-Joon refuses to open this box. Even if Seo-Rae transitions from a position of guilt to innocence or if her guilt becomes evident over time, Hae-Joon accepts the Seo-Rae inside the box but does not accept the circumstances she embodies.
In the presence of the unmistakable femme fatale, the homme fragile desperately succumbs to acceptance. This duality manifests itself akin to quantum entanglement. According to quantum entanglement theory, two entangled particles exist in the universe, regardless of the distance between them, and are expected to exhibit opposite behaviors. Hae-Joon and Seo-Rae, even as they continue their lives separately, unconsciously remain aware of each other and continue to act in opposing manners. Hae-Joon still lives with his wife as an homme fragile, maintaining his melancholic, emotional nature. Seo-Rae, likewise, engages in a completely different relationship as a femme fatale, and at some point, these interlinked particles, no matter how far apart they may be, continue to exist within the same context, sustaining their entanglement.
Visually Captivating Structure
With its aesthetically pleasing cinematography, “Decision to Leave” not only delves into metaphysics and philosophy but also showcases a visually captivating structure. In comparison to Park Chan-wook’s other films, this one is more subdued yet still unmistakably a Park Chan-wook production, featuring narrative techniques, temporal leaps, and spatial utilization that define his distinctive style. Point of view (POV) shots are employed in a striking manner, a technique often associated with horror films, placing the audience in the position of the approaching killer. It provides a glimpse into the character’s perspective, granting access to their inner world. However, in Decision to Leave, the POV scenes are provided through the eyes of an animal or an inanimate object, offering a gaze directed at the character of Hae-Joon. This technique effectively exposes Hae-Joon’s internal world while externalizing his presence through these shots, conveying his inner thoughts outwardly.
Scenes featuring characters reflected in mirrors, glass, and screens are heavily utilized, prompting a contemplation of the relationship between reflection and reality. These reflections also serve as a metaphor for the audience’s engagement, as they continuously identify with the characters throughout the film, questioning what is ethical, good, or bad. Seo-Rae, being a Chinese woman and a native Mandarin speaker, often incorporates obsolete Korean words and phrases when speaking in Korean. This linguistic barrier creates a tangible and substantial wall between the two characters, as Seo-Rae and Hae-Joon exist within the realm of the “lost in translation” idiom.
When Hae-Joon discovers evidence proving Seo-Rae’s guilt, he instructs her to throw all the evidence into the sea. When Seo-Rae visits Ipo, she informs Hae-Joon that he will be her unsolved case and proceeds to bury herself in the sand, waiting to drown. She discards herself like any other evidence, tossed into the sea. The ending of Decision to Leave leaves the audience with numerous questions and metaphors to ponder.
Seo-Rae’s Liberating Decision
In an interview, Park Chan-wook shared his thoughts on Seo-Rae’s ultimate “Decision to Leave” stating:
“I don’t want the audience to think that Seo-rae sacrificed herself to prevent a man from ruining his career or his marriage, that she disappeared for the man. Instead, she has chosen a personal way for herself, and this is her method of liberation and to attain freedom for herself. That’s how I want the audience to think of the ending.”
Seo-Rae is not a woman who would sacrifice herself for any man or conform to the Virgin Mary stereotype. She simply desires to bring about her own demise, making the final decision for herself. Placing herself in a well among the sands and waiting for death to come from the water (the sea) without taking any actions to give up signifies Seo-Rae’s yearning to reunite with the element that contradicts her essence—the water. She has not lived up to the benevolent qualities often associated with water, yet she seeks its benevolence in death and salvation. Neither Seo-Rae is as benevolent as water, nor Hae-Joon is as harsh as the mountains. Both characters possess fluidity and exist in a reverse proportion to gender roles. However, their relationship is both like water and like a mountain. Just as lovers can remain connected even when separated, those who cannot unite are still in love to an extent that they can never part.
Last modified: September 24, 2023