“Decision to Leave’s” old and new obsessions



Park Hae-il (left) and Go Kyung-Pyo (right) star in Park Chan-wook latest mystery.

Park Chan-wook is always looking to raise the stakes. Whether it is intricate themes of Freudian desire, outmoded filmmaking techniques or convoluted plotting, his films are always infused with some nuance that overwhelms the mind or senses. His latest picture, “Decision to Leave,” is no different.

A cerebral story of loss and obsession, “Decision to Leave” is like if Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” was inflected for modern times. 

It tells the tale of Hae-Jun, a detective whose marriage to Soo-Wan, an eccentric woman, is corroding due to his all consuming professional life which is split between working cases in Busan and his home in the misty town of Ipo. When Hae-Jun is tasked with investigating the suspicious death of a bureaucrat, the widow, Seo-Rae, becomes both the prime suspect and object of Hae-Jun’s desires. 

In the vein of 1940s and ‘50s noirs, “Decision to Leave” expands on this plot in a serpentine way, weaving various narrative threads into a maze that ensnares the viewer. However, what really makes Park Chan-wook’s direction so effective is when he chooses to depart from convention. Standard structure means little to him, and emphasis is instead put on Hae-Jun’s subjective experience and its manifestation.

Techniques often deemed archaic are no stranger to Park Chan-wook. His previous films, most notably “The Handmaiden” and “Stoker,” often synthesized elements of both the old and new to accentuate the tone of the picture. This trend continues in “Decision to Leave.” Hae-Jun’s psychological state is frequently shown through editing choices such as wipes and superimpositions while the orchestral score compliments the action. These might be considered outdated, but the film is clearly a pastiche of noirs from years past. It is effective on its own terms.

However, as previously mentioned, paying homage to the old is not Park Chan-wook’s sole priority. A central theme in “Decision to Leave” is the intertwining of technology and tradition, the artificial and the natural. All the characters are surrounded by natural beauty, like mountains, beaches or snow, yet so much of their lives are mediated through technology. Hae-Jun’s wife is constantly citing obscure New Age lifestyle advice she gleans from the internet. The detectives and suspects in the case are perpetually consulting their devices. When Hae-Jun suggests destroying a phone which holds compromising evidence, it thematically comes back to haunt him like a phantom. With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that Park Chan-wook would combine old and new filmmaking techniques.

In this respect, it is refreshing to see a director actively attempt to engage with more challenging aspects of the current times. Many of the most famous living filmmakers, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson just to name a few, are telling valuable stories, but they are still stories of the past. Their period pieces are more concerned with illuminating a certain aspect of history. There is undoubtedly value to this, but it does beg the question: Where are films that deal with the current moment? Even films set in the present often eschew realistic representations of technology. 

“Decision to Leave” pushes back against this technological aversion. Park Chan-wook has always been concerned with both modernity and the past, but “Decision to Leave” pushes his style and themes in new directions by connecting the two in such explicit fashion.

On top of the thematic concerns of the film, it also carries a pure sense of entertainment. Humor, action and romance seamlessly intertwine to create a tonal tapestry. A multitude of different styles and genres sift through in such masterful fashion that “Decision to Leave” almost necessitates a second viewing so that the viewer can appreciate the film on both a visceral and cerebral level. 

Perhaps it is just the pessimism of our current times that has drawn filmmakers to the past instead of the present. “Decision to Leave” shows that engagement with both time periods simultaneously is not only possible, but can elucidate deeper aesthetic and ideological truths. Admittedly, it takes a special talent to achieve that, but thankfully Park Chan-wook is up to the task.