“I went through hell for you but without you my life would be empty” a fugitive murderer asks an insomniac detective to tell the woman he loves, making his own Decision to Leave (헤어질 결심, Heojil kyolshim) which will in fact be one of many in Park Chan-wook’s achingly romantic noir. Tinged with fatalism, the pursuit of love is also one of death and leads inevitably to a kind of haunting from which there is no real escape though you wouldn’t really want one anyway.
In any case, the detective Park Hae-joon’s (Park Hae-il) sense of reality is already fracturing under the strain of his incurable insomnia. As he tells his partner, it’s not that he can’t sleep because of his obsessive stakeouts, it’s that he goes on stakeouts because he cannot sleep. Unfortunately for him, there have been relatively few murders lately. He wonders if it’s because of the nice weather, as if homicidal rage were being held in check by the gentle art of picnicking which it has to be said has a strange logic to it. Living apart from his wife who is a nuclear engineer in provincial Ipo, Hae-joon prides himself on being a good policeman and is preoccupied by his failure to catch two suspects currently on the run for a vicious murder. When he’s called to the scene of a dead body lying below a cliff, most are ready to rule it a tragic accident or perhaps a suicide but Hae-joon isn’t so sure especially given the unusual behaviour of the man’s much younger widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who appears almost indifferent to her husband’s death and giggles to herself during an interrogation a habit she later claims is born of nervousness and a lack of confidence in her ability to speak Korean having migrated from China.
Seo-rae’s Korean is perhaps a little better than she makes out, but still we see her repeating lines from romantic dramas on television, lines she later repeats to Hae-joon, while he wonders if her taste for historical romance has lent her Korean its archaic quality. They are each in a way out of time, she remarking that he strikes her as “dignified” to a degree she didn’t expect in a “modern” man while he ironically tells her that he was drawn to her because like him she liked to look at things directly. Yet there’s nothing at all direct about the mysterious Seo-rae whom he suspects of murdering her husband, and though there might be something unspoken directly understood between them their attempts at communication are always frustrated. Not only is there an ever shifting language barrier, but a mediation through text message and voice note or else through the act of being observed at a distance. As they grow closer, Hae-joon allows Seo-rae to listen to his surveillance tapes recorded as he voyeuristically watched her apartment from the rooftop opposite. She immediately deletes them but later does something similar herself, and is finally undone by her inability to delete a potentially incriminating recording because it has come to mean too much to her.
The pair are in a sense perfectly matched. Hae-joon’s melancholy wife finally exclaims that he needs murder and violence in order to be happy, while Seo-rae admits that she ends up with terrible men like husband because it would take something extreme such as a murder for a good man like Hae-joon to take notice of her. As the couple dance around each other, Park colours their non-romance with shades of the gothic in the repeated motif of the crow feathers each of them find as they work their way towards the apotheosis of their love. As they say every love story is a ghost story and what is love if not an unsolvable mystery? Hae-joon’s sense of reality is forever in flux, Park playfully dressing Hae-joon’s new team and his old team in similar outfits as he segues between fantasy, reality, and memory while trying to parse out an objective truth. Hae-joon’s tragedy may be that he discovers more than he ought to know but not enough to solve the mystery, destined to be haunted by his unresolved cases and the elusive silhouette of lost love lingering silently in the mists of memory.
Decision to Leave screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and is now on general release in US & UK cinemas courtesy of MUBI.
International trailer (English subtitles)
Angae (Mist) by Jung Hoon-hee (1967) which is also the title song for Kim Soo-yong’s 1967 film of the same name.