“Decision to Leave” indulges in fluidity — in ever-shifting conceptions of others and the self. Is the dress Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei) wears that catches Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il)’s eye emerald or indigo? Did Seo-rae truly love her husband, or did she push him off a mountain? Can all of this be true at once?
This negotiation of identity is enmeshed within a film that initially presents itself as a labyrinthine crime procedural. Yet, “Decision to Leave” employs obscure imagery for deceptive ends. The feature is not so much concerned with uncovering the circumstances of a puzzling death than it is with the longing that tinges one’s desire to unearth enigmatic appearances, perhaps for a chance at connection amid discontent.
“Decision to Leave,” directed by eminent filmmaker Park Chan-wook, centers around Detective Hae-jun, whose affinity for stake-outs on the job extends to voyeuristic surveillance at night. Malaise permeates his quotidian routine, perpetuating his insomnia.
Early on, a seasoned hiker, Ki Do-soo (Yoo Seung-mok), falls to his death atop a nearby mountain. Despite the incident being framed as an accident, Jang Hae-jun and the police suspect otherwise. Do-soo’s younger wife, Seo-rae, remains unstirred by her husband’s death, which raises suspicion in Hae-jun’s fellow detectives. Hae-jun, meanwhile, notes that his wife wouldn’t be tremendously affected by his death either — a reticent yet revealing admission.
Hae-jun begins to spend his days and nights tailing Seo-rae, drawn to her perhaps because he is just close enough to sense a shared melancholy, but not close enough to penetrate what lies beyond it. As he tracks her, surveying her routine becomes his. He begins to imagine himself in her apartment beside her as he stakes her out, envisioning himself in multiple spaces at once as he falls for Seo-rae in between rooftop chases and trips home to his wife.
Park’s film most closely recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in form and content. Hitchcock’s 1958 picture, too, focuses on a detective who yearns for a woman from afar, becoming beholden to her image even while perplexed by the ensuing interplay between her guilt and innocence. Likewise, “Decision to Leave” also utilizes vivid close-ups of eyes and depicts gray images of swirling trees atop mountains, constructing a distinct sense of foreboding tragedy amid one’s surrender to intimacy.
But “Decision to Leave” holds resonance on its own, particularly through Park’s expansive visual subjectivity. The film makes use of Park’s signature black humor, highlighting intricate ironies: At one point, the film makes a sharp pan to Hae-jun’s ring while he’s with Seo-rae; at another, Hae-jun fixes his eyes on the mold on the ceiling of his bedroom as he makes love to his wife, his bedroom wall crossfading into an X-ray.
Incongruity between space and yearning is used to construct lush images of unfulfilled dreamscapes. Hae-jun, while surveilling Seo-rae, visualizes himself close enough to hold an ashtray for her while she smokes, close enough to cushion her in an embrace — all while he lies in a hunched position in his car, camouflaged in the night, the camera adopting the duality of space within this subjectivity.
Technology is another leitmotif key to the film’s identity, as the camera often assumes the perspective of Hae-jun’s phone and laptop, blinking up at him — the blue light stark against the blackness that pervades the film’s environments. But this rendering of surveillance as alien doesn’t hold in the conception of tenderness between Seo-rae and Hae-jun, where surveillance is transformed into a currency of intimacy. Seo-rae knows Hae-jun is watching her, but lets him anyway. Perhaps, when to be watched is to be carefully perceived by another — with a hope of mutual understanding — surveillance is transformed from an overbearing hypermodern cornerstone to an act of care.
“Put my photos on your wall, think of them all night, and solely think of me,” Seo-rae whispers to Hae-jun, yielding to his inspection of her. Here, Seo-rae’s plea to be seen might ring hollow, but the languid course of “Decision to Leave” demands one’s sole attention. Its images are at once coarse and gentle, tranquil and turbulent, and surprisingly au courant.