We all have an idea of what the ideal femme fatale should look like: Polished bird-of-prey fingernails, a wicked, enigmatic smile (when she bothers to smile at all), a walk that could make a panther slink back into the forest, determined to perfect her own moves. But in his gorgeous and precise neo-noir reverie Decision to Leave, Park Chan-wook gives us a different sort of femme fatale: a dream-haunter whose intelligence and vulnerability are the great lure, skimming just beneath the surface of one man’s desire before jerking him to the depths. She’s a nurse who cares for the elderly, tending to their needs with great tenderness. Grief-stricken by a recent loss—or something—she watches sad movies on TV as she dips into a dinner of ice-cream. (The man, a detective, sees this as he watches through her window, an illicit but thrilling incursion into her world.) She’s not what she seems—but then, who is? We think of a femme fatale’s chief characteristic as deceitfulness. But is it necessarily a woman’s fault when she doesn’t, or can’t, measure up to a man’s dream of her?
With Decision to Leave, director Park takes the Vertigo nut graf—a man is so blinded by his own illusions that he can’t see the real woman standing in front of him—and spins it into a modern saga of romantic obsession disguised as a police procedural. The film is a box of secret compartments; just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, one more panel springs open. It’s funny at times, but only to a point: somewhere along the way it reconfigures itself into a work of somber formality, with an ending as gorgeously elegiac as any you’ll see all year. “Decision to Leave is a film for adults,” Park has said. “Rather than tell the story of loss as something tragic, I tried to express it with subtlety, elegance and humor, in a manner that speaks to adults.” At the movies, it has become so rare to be spoken to as grownups that we’ve almost forgotten the dignified pleasure of it.
Park Hae-il (possibly best known to American audiences for his role in Bong Joon Ho’s The Host) plays Detective Hae-joon, assigned to investigate the death of an experienced climber, a businessman, who has fallen to his death from a steep rock face. The man’s widow is called in for questioning: Seo-rae (played by the marvelous Chinese actress Tang Wei, of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution) answers Hae-jun’s questions in a way that’s both enigmatic and direct; she seems coolly unaffected by her husband’s death, and her mystique is further intensified by the fact that she’s Chinese and doesn’t speak good Korean. (Her husband, it turns out, had both sponsored her Korean citizenship and helped secure recognition for her grandfather’s role in the Korean independence movement.)
Seo-rae also shows signs of being physically abused, though that isn’t enough, at first, to make Hae-joon trust her. Skeptical by nature—as well as an insomniac, a man whose dreams have nowhere to play out at night—he keeps an eye on her. Though he works in the port city of Busan, on weekends he goes home to his “real” life—or perhaps, in reality, just another life—in a small seaside town, where his highly practical but not unsympathetic wife (played by Lee Jung-hyun), keeps him on track to live a long and healthy life, a regimen that includes regular sex. Her wit is the pragmatic kind: “We need to do it every week, even when we hate each other,” she tells him. She may be a little bossy, but at least she’s in it for the long haul.
Yet none of that keeps Hae-joon from thinking about, and drawing closer, to Seo-rae. In her ladylike calf-skimming skirts and simple drapey sweaters, she’s a perfectly trustworthy upper-middle-class housewife. Tang Wei plays Seo-rae as a sphinx with a soul; her composure is unwavering, yet behind it, you still feel the blood thrumming. Seo-rae reads things in Hae-joon, who, it seems, has been longing to be read without really knowing it. It’s the ultimate seduction. His detective’s skepticism crumbles, leaving his stalwart poet’s heart raw and exposed—Park Hae-il plays it all with the weightless intensity of a sigh. In one scene, the two visit a temple, a marvel of painted celestial clouds and waves, breathing its stillness in unison. Hae-joon notices the roughness of Seo-rae’s hands; he smooths them with the hand cream he happens to be carrying, a gesture that leads, like a dancer’s flourish, to the next moment. Seo-rae asks Hae-joon, always turned out in simple but elegant detective-wear, about his custom-made suits and coats, outfitted with multiple pockets to carry life’s necessity. She riffles around in those pockets—though we see only the character’s faces, not their bodies—and finds a tube of lip balm; she puts some on her lips and some on his. It’s a classic moment of midcentury eroticism brought forward to 2022, a sequence that spells out nothing and suggests everything.
Obsessive voyeurism, sleeplessness, language barriers, the draw and the danger of the ocean: Park and his frequent writing partner Chung Seo-kyung—along with ace cinematographer Kim Ji-Yong—use classic dramatic tools and some new ones to grand effect, building to a remarkable ending that represents the erasure of both the true self and the illusion. There are elegant special effects: As Hae-jun waits for a text response, we see the planes of his face reflected in those floating, rippling onscreen ellipses, our classic modern symbol of anticipation and dread. Everything about this film—Park’s first since his sensational and smoldering 2016 historical romance The Handmaiden—is sophisticated without being stuffy or rarefied. The storytelling isn’t always straightforward. But stick with it, go with it, and revel in the pleasure of being spoken to as an adult. These years, too, are fleeting.
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