The Lady Vanishes

Park Chan-wook’s crimes of the heart

Park Chan-wook, Decision to Leave, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 138 minutes. Hae-joon and Seo-rae (Park Hae-il and Tang Wei).

MIDWAY THROUGH THE FIRST ACT of Decision to Leave, Park Chan-wook’s new film, a split-second gesture baits the senses: Alone with a woman late at night, a man unfastens his belt, its frictional hiss lancing the room’s tense silence. But the loaded cue dissolves in the same instant, as he reaches for a leather holster and fastens it to the belt. In the next scene, he’s cooking her dinner. No other filmmaker could so swiftly cram three seconds with as many successive feelings: a nascent thrill, its swerve into frustration, and its sudden detour into confusion, seeming too brief to have happened at all.

This is the kind of coy taunt that separates Decision to Leave from the rest of Park’s oeuvre, defined by prodigious reversals and operatic visions of carnality, with room in their gnarled union for unlikely flickers of humor. But in his latest film, form is used to trouble feeling, blunting the lacerations of pathos, revulsion, and arousal, refusing its audience even the whiplash of a plot as it rips around a bend. The film’s real twist is the way Park fools us into searching for the wrong sensation: Like its detective protagonist, we gather shots soused in portent, taking close-ups as clues and willing their sum into lavish revelations, only to witness rituals of longing add up to nothing but quiet ruin.

After the body of a climber is found at the foot of a rocky peak, we watch Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), a married cop on Busan’s homicide beat, as he becomes ensorcelled by the beautiful cipher at the heart of the case: Seo-rae (Tang Wei), the climber’s much younger Chinese widow. The facts, at first blush: Seo-rae’s husband was an immigration agent; she, a stowaway in a shipping crate; he was abusive; she will not report her broken ribs. You already know the investigation will coax out secret desires immured by habit, and that, sooner or later, this woman will steer him into irreversible devastation(though the femme, more often than not, is most fatal to herself). If character tropes from detective plots and wayward romances seem so well aligned, it’s because, absent confession, guilt and love both call for proof. To modify an axiom from Barthes’s glossary of amatory nuance: The one who does not say I did it—like “the one who does not say I-love-you”—must let themselves be interpreted.

Park Chan-wook, Decision to Leave, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 138 minutes. Seo-rae (Tang Wei).

From start to end, Decision to Leave relies on tech’s hall of black mirrors to thematize the mise en abyme of perception, a familiar enough motif but a new one for Park. When Hae-joon stakes out Seo-rae’s apartment, the illusive intimacy of his binocular vision becomes its own spectacle: He rides his gaze into her living room, indulging banal fantasies of self-insertion into the syntax of her everyday life. It’s an old trick, having the watcher dream himself into proximity with a lush zoom or well-placed elision, but the film is no mere novel exercise in restraint for a director who prefers surfeit. Its formal invention is an excess of its own, hidden in plain sight: its dizzying plethora of cryptic cross cuts. The rhythm set by Park and long-time editor Kim Sang-bum makes sensation and story snag on the unexpected edge of a scene, as sudden cuts keep us from emotion’s usual crescendo. Pivotal reveals, too, are interrupted so abruptly that their narrative import dawns much later, if at all. This kind of editing risks convoluting a plot that is obvious enough—at least to an audience unblinkered by desire’s willful misreadings.

But every cut is also a suture, and the mystery of the film’s visible seams exposes its central plight of interpretation, testing how we watch films at all. Fitting that Decision to Leave also tempts the eye with its jewel-toned gusto, unfurling a chromatic scheme—like the many visual echoes of mountains and seas—along its own numinous path. Like mist, a certain teal seeps through the film, nudging its way into the background as patterned wallpaper or green hills rolling into the distant blue. Sometimes, the color floods a nighttime shot as a lambent, aquatic tint. In Seo-rae’s wardrobe, blues and greens are singled out at maximum saturation: the vivid daub of a cobalt sweater; a long pine-green coat; a satin dress in a hue so elusive that its ambiguity becomes a plot point in the film’s second act.

Park Chan-wook, Decision to Leave, 2022, DCP, color, sound, 138 minutes. Hae-joon and Seo-rae (Park Hae-il and Tang Wei).

In this hermeneutic drama, sound is just as vital as image. On those early stakeouts, Hae-joon logs the minutiae of Seo-rae’s nocturnal routines as voice recordings, which she mirrors with an audio diary of reciprocated observations. Vocal inscriptions become archives of yearning; what we do not hear in words might well be hidden in the vagaries of idiolect. When Seo-rae’s admissions are too brutal for the dictionary primness of her second tongue, she talks to Hae-joon through her phone’s translation app, her darkest confessions playing out twice: first in Mandarin, inflected with the raw cadence of native speech, then once more, without feeling, its affectless redux in an AI ’s imitation of Korean. It’s through this mechanized proxy that Hae-joon learns of the horror that led to Seo-rae’s first marriage: She crossed the Yellow Sea in the shit-filled clutch of a fish storage bin, lost for ten days in the heat of summer.

Though Park and cowriter Chung Seo-kyung have acknowledged the immigration plot as a function of Tang Wei’s casting and not vice versa, both trace her appeal to the loaded duplicity of her onscreen debut as the drama-student-turned-Resistance-spy in Lust, Caution (2007). Even back then, soft-cheeked and fresh-eyed, mouth like a budding rose, Tang’s cherubic mien managed to disclose a private ferocity. There, political conviction sharpened her lapidary performance of deception, but in Decision to Leave, the stakes of Seo-rae’s survival are personal. Even though Hae-joon seems to insist on her opacity, he knows far more of her formative traumas than she does any of his: Here is a woman who assisted her ailing mother’s suicide, has been threatened with deportation by her own husband. In her final scene with Hae-joon, she couches a class confession in her farewell: “For a commendable man like you to speak to me, something on the scale of murder has to happen.” He thinks it an ill-timed joke and snaps, unable to read the fact of their entwinement as anything but abject hyperbole.

In many ways, Decision to Leave is a foil to its immediate predecessor, The Handmaiden (2016), and its vision of love as an opening, each woman steeled against taboo and committed in their affections, blossoming under each other’s look. For our noir-fated pair, every covert glance affirms not desire’s possible fullness but its necessary gap, reminding Seo-rae that she has drawn Hae-joon’s gaze because she is, foremost, a suspect. She knows the course of his affection began with a wrong turn in the search for a different set of answers, and that the mutual encryption of their desire is what sustains them. But she knows, too, that in performing a partial self for this clueless man she has felt something true. And so, in a finale that retreats from Park’s usual, spectacular catharsis, Seo-rae decides, for her last trick, to vanish at golden hour, interred by sand and sea. Long after she is gone, Hae-joon keeps searching along the darkening shore, against the mist-choked blue of a vespertine sky, spurred onward by false hope, which is love’s gentlest way of wounding.

Decision to Leave opens in US and UK theaters on October 14.