The plot summaries for Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave refer to a man being found dead at the foot of a mountain. This is correct, but it isn’t quite what it looks like on screen. There’s a body, a police team is investigating, and we are in a mountainous area. But the rock the man fell or was pushed from looks like a theme park invention. This effect is enhanced when our hero, a detective called Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), mentally reconstructs the murder that might have been: the man’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), climbs the rock from a different approach, risking her life at every second, and finally shoves him off the top.
There are more plausible murder methods but this is the one Hae-jun settles on as his solution. He does so only after the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has crept into the soundtrack. We wonder what this allusion to Visconti’s Death in Venice is doing here. Perhaps falling in love with your chief suspect bears some relation to a man’s struggle to control his feelings for a boy on the beach. And of course even without Visconti, the choice of Mahler is interesting enough.
Hae-jun is not inclined to suspect Seo-rae immediately; he starts to spy on her only because a colleague suggests he won’t be doing his job properly if he doesn’t. He’s not very good at tracking her but imagines she hasn’t noticed him – the comic climax of this sequence arrives when she catches him asleep in his car and takes a photo. Eventually he closes the case because she has a perfect alibi for the time of her husband’s death, which there is every reason to believe was a suicide.
The recurring visual memento during this part of the film is an interrogation taking place in a room with a long mirror wall. This gives us four people where there are notionally only two and encourages our belief that we know what is real and what is reflected. Park Chan-wook keeps offering criss-cross conflations of the figures, the image of one and the film reality of the other. Of course we know that we’re seeing images in both cases, and the implication that the characters may never be more than images to each other is clear. But something else is happening to the idea of visual knowledge and to other sorts of understanding.
There were good reasons to be suspicious of Seo-rae. She didn’t seem much upset by her husband’s death, saying that there was more important suffering in the world than hers (she is a caregiver in a hospital), and remarking, perhaps in a verbal slip, that she expected her husband, given his climbing interests, to die one day ‘at last’. She is a Chinese immigrant who claims she is unsure of the local language, but no one else seems to think she has any trouble with it. She also, as she readily confesses, killed her mother (at her request) in an act of euthanasia.
This all matters to Hae-jun because he carries on seeing his former suspect, who fascinates him in a way that his wife, Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun), doesn’t. We get glimpses of him with his wife at the weekends – her job requires her to live in the small town of Ipo, whereas his work keeps him in Busan, a city of some three and a half million people. The relationship, though there is occasional sex, seems merely amiable, dominated by his struggle to quit smoking. She accuses him of other addictions, of not being able to live without a rich supply of violence and murder, for instance. This thought recalls the very first words spoken in the film, when Hae-jun and a colleague are chatting: there are fewer murders in their district than there used to be, and apparently this does not count as an improvement.
As Hae-jun’s romance with Seo-rae develops he perversely reopens the case in his mind. It’s a chaste affair, as an enchanted criminal investigation ought to be, full of cryptic conversations about what they don’t feel. Towards the end Seo-rae recalls the moment when he first told her he loved her. He can’t remember doing so. Sounding like a character in an epigrammatic French novel, she replies that obviously he had stopped loving her when he said it, and that her love for him began at that moment. Meanwhile he thinks he has worked out how she rigged her alibi, including the evidence for her husband’s supposed inclination to suicide. He doesn’t tell anyone else about this, but gloomily confronts her and they part in misery.
Thirteen months pass. Hae-jun has moved to Ipo – he and his wife can now live together – and predictably enough, Seo-rae, now remarried, lives there too. The four meet at a market one day, and a beautifully calibrated, endlessly embarrassing conversation takes place. Soon after, Seo-rae’s husband, a financial operator with many enemies, is found dead in his swimming pool. Of course, Hae-jun can’t not suspect the two-time widow, and falls in love with her all over again. The film gets back into its Mahlerian mood, with lots of sea and sand and wind and chances of drowning.
The film lingers over the second murder case a bit too long, as if we needed a complete rerun of the first in order to get all the ironies, but the questions set up on its shifting ground are intriguing. What does it mean to be a detective who can’t get enough mysteries to solve? To be dependent on other people’s will to commit crimes? Early on, a friend says to Hae-jun that he should get some sleep instead of spending his nights staking out suspects. Hae-jun says he does the staking out because he can’t sleep. Wouldn’t such a detective need to fall in love with a suspect, if the suspect was dangerous and attractive enough? The suspect, in return, might well feel the need to be both guilty (romantically alive) and innocent (not in prison or executed).
Park Chan-wook has created a double whodunnit where solutions are not absent but available in excess, and yet still aren’t the main interest. When we see the director at the beginning of the film, speaking kindly and helpfully to us, his ‘explanation’ only complicates the puzzle. The film is about detection and suspicion, he tells us; it is a mystery and a romance. In an interview elsewhere he has said that Vertigo made him want to become a filmmaker. Perhaps the song that recurs through the film and plays over the final credits helps us a little. Like the Mahler, it takes us to another place. It is composed by Jo Yeong-wook and sung in Korean, but the guitar looms large and it’s unmistakably Latin-American, a form of bolero. It’s pleasant and sad, not at all threatening. In the film, an old lady keeps asking Seo-rae to play it for her. It is about getting lost in the mist.
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