Park Chan-wook’s twisty crime drama Decision to Leave is one of the best movies of 2022, and one of the most sophisticated films he’s ever made. It manages to stand out in a career that’s already produced a number of fantastic, memorable movies, from the political drama Joint Security Area to the revenge thriller Oldboy to the incredible period piece The Handmaiden.
But Decision to Leave is also a remarkably subtle film, including in ways English viewers may not fully pick up on. Speaking with Park through a translator after his film played at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, it immediately became clear he’d packed a lot of layered symbolism into the tiny details of the movie, the kinds of things that are hard to pick up, especially on a first viewing — and for non-Korean speakers, maybe impossible to catch at all. Polygon spoke to Park about some of those little character details, and how he intended them to shape the story.
In Decision to Leave, married insomniac detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il, from Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder) investigates Chinese expat Seo-rae (Tang Wei, from Lust, Caution) after her husband dies in what seems like a hiking accident. Hae-jun is a cautious, methodical, melancholy man who obsesses endlessly over his cold cases, and he can’t sleep at night because he thinks too much about all the mysteries he’s never solved.
Seo-rae, a quiet woman who sees right through him, picks up on the dynamic immediately. Hae-jun’s relationship with his wife seems solid and amiable enough, but he quickly starts to fall for Seo-rae. For her part, she doesn’t initially seem like she’s looking to replace her husband, and it isn’t clear until the end of the movie whether she’s manipulating Hae-jun so he’ll clear her of any possible crime or she’s falling for him as well. Park offered a little insight on that ending and other small mysteries that stand out throughout the film.
The genre, the sex, and the violence
One thing that’s surprised some viewers about Decision to Leave is how much this crime story focuses on romance. There’s been some debate over exactly what genre label Decision to Leave falls under — whether it’s more a police procedural, a thriller, a murder mystery, or just a romantic drama with some murder in it.
For Park, though, there isn’t much debate. “This is one of the reasons I reduced the elements of nudity and violence in this film,” he tells Polygon. “In my opinion, most of my prior works have also been romance films, films about love. But people haven’t been able to take it in that way. I think because the nudity and violence was so explicit, so in their face, that that’s all they remember when they walk out of the theater.
“So even when I do make a romance film, people will look at the eroticism rather than the romanticism that was supposed to be conveyed. I wanted to break away from those misjudgments, which is why I tried to get rid of those elements in this film.”
The language barrier
One major thing about Seo-rae that may not land for non-Korean speakers: She apologizes to everyone she meets for her poor grasp of the language. Sometimes she even speaks Chinese into her phone and has it translate for her. At the same time, the English subtitles mark her as formal and erudite, with nothing suggesting she speaks clumsily. Park says that’s a detail that likely doesn’t land well in translation.
“Seo-rae’s Korean pronunciation is imperfect, but it’s just good enough that a Korean person would be able to understand what she’s saying,” Park says. “When she’s sending a text, she has the most perfect grammar and spelling. By contrast, her second husband has terrible spelling and grammar. When she’s speaking, all her phrases are almost perfect. She actually sounds even more elegant than a modern Korean person, because she learned her Korean through period dramas. She’s like a person trying to learn English through Shakespeare’s writing.”
Park says Korean speakers will likely think Seo-rae sounds “a bit funny,” but that he wanted them to experience a specific process of getting used to her language: “You might be surprised by how it sounds. But the more and more you hear it, you realize that her Korean is more accurate than it sounds, more elegant. So a viewer might end up feeling a bit sorry, or a bit awkward, about having thought her speech was funny earlier.
“There are also instances in the movie where she will use a particular word, but in a strange context. So when someone hears it, they would think it’s wrong at first. The more they hear it, the more they can realize there’s actually a new meaning to that word. All this might be difficult to get through the subtitles, but I’m sure all of you have also had a similar experience with listening to a foreigner trying to speak English, and it doesn’t quite sound correct.”
Decision to Leave has been a hit in Korea, sitting at the top of the box office when it was released earlier in 2022, and ranking in the top 10 all-time Korean box-office hits. But Park says the published screenplay is also a bestseller, which has given more people a chance to study how Seo-rae texts and speaks. “Her classical use of Korean has actually become a new trend,” he says.
Hae-jun’s specifically tailored clothing is a peculiar running detail in the film: He’s had his clothes tailored with extra pockets, which he fills with small objects: tissues, packets of antibiotic wipes, and so forth. Both Seo-rae and his wife casually reach into those pockets when they want something, as if he were a walking vending machine. It seems clear Park and co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong want us to see he’s a meticulous planner who tries to prepare for everything — and the women in his life take advantage of his preparation, a process he accepts passively.
“You’re correct that his pockets are there to express that he’s ready for anything in his life,” Park says. “Because he’s a detective, you might expect that he’d carry a gun within one of these pockets. But the funny thing is that he doesn’t really have a gun. He carries wipes and lip balm. I wanted to express that he’s a generous person who understands everyone around him. He understands why this person does this or that. He’s ready to embrace anything in anyone in his life.”
Park says detectives encounter more “abnormal people in society” than the average citizen, so they need “a wider sense of understanding” of humanity. “You need to be a more embracing person to have that occupation,” he says. “So I wanted to express that he has the right attitude to be a policeman. To add off of that, it is important for a policeman to not have prejudice toward other people. Because if that happens, a policeman might wrongfully suspect someone, based on their looks, or things like that. So that is something I considered very important to have in this character.”
But is there more to it? Park says viewers should pay particular attention to how his wife uses those pockets, as opposed to how Seo-rae does.
“It’s true all the women in his life are taking things out of his pockets, but there’s an important difference between the two women taking things: His wife, despite the fact that she spent a long time with her husband, she doesn’t know what is in which pocket in his jacket. While Seo-rae knows exactly what to get from which pocket.”
The chainmail glove
At one point in the film, Hae-jun faces a runaway criminal who’s wielding a knife, and the detective carefully pulls out and dons a single chainmail glove, which he uses to defend himself. It’s an odd piece of equipment for a policeman, and non-Korean viewers may wonder: Is a chainmail glove standard police equipment in Korea?
“Not all Korean policeman wear those gloves,” Park says. “But the actor, Park Hae-il, actually has an acquaintance who is a retired policeman, and he advised him that he should keep a glove like that, in case a robber comes into his house or anything dangerous happens. So that’s where that’s from.”
Park says it’s another small character touch meant to emphasize Hae-jun’s pockets and their contents: “Again, it’s to reinforce the image that he’s ready for any situation.”
Eyes and eyedrops
Viewers may notice a preoccupation with eyes in close-up and with people staring at objects or each other throughout Decision To Leave — a major running theme is the question of who accurately sees what, and who misses what’s in front of their eyes. Hae-jun underlines the themes by repeatedly producing a bottle of eyedrops from his endless pockets, and applying it whenever he’s about to examine a crime scene or an evidence folder. That feels like a metaphor for clearing his vision. But it could just as easily be a sign that he feels strain or drain when he’s dealing with all these crimes, or that his longstanding insomnia leaves him with dry eyes. Which is it?
“I just want to reinforce the point that these aren’t eyedrops because he has an illness,” Park says. “It’s just for when he has foggy vision, so he can see the world more clearly.”
That’s also in keeping with Decision to Leave’s themes about mystery and perspective, and about the difficulty of seeing and understanding other people — even for people as insightful and penetrating as Hae-jun and Seo-rae.
“Throughout the movie, we see a lot of mist,” Park says. “We also notice that people’s clothes are on the borderline between green and blue. There’s a lot of uncertainty visually, which is a theme throughout the movie. It represents how the characters don’t know their own emotions. They’re also unclear about other people’s emotions. They aren’t sure whether Seo-rae is supposed to be a femme fatale who is trying to take advantage of people.”
The song ‘Mist’
Korean viewers are likely to have a lot more feelings associated with the song “Mist,” which recurs several times throughout the movie, including over its end titles. The original 1967 version of the song, recorded by famed folksinger Jung Hoon Hee, is the kind of ubiquitous earworm Park expects everyone in his culture has been exposed to at some point in their lives. In a Q&A after a Decision to Leave screening at Fantastic Fest, Park revealed he also looked for the most famous male cover of the song, with the intention of using it in the film as well. He settled on a version by another well-known singer-songwriter, Song Chang-sik.
But while he originally meant to end the movie with Song’s version over the credits, he decided that didn’t work within the themes he wanted to draw out of the film. “I realized it broke the balance,” he says. “If you end the movie just hearing the male voice, it makes the movie seem like just a sad story of one man who met and lost a woman. I tried hard to keep the balance between them throughout the movie.”
Instead, he asked Song and Jung to return to the studio and record a new duet version of the song, which then became the movie’s official original song release.
English speakers will have a hard time finding an accurate translation of “Mist” online. Park says streaming service Mubi translated the lyrics for the film’s subtitles, and those subtitles “are the most correct English translations available.”
“The story [of Decision to Leave] started from the song ‘Mist,’ Park says. “Specifically within those lyrics, there are the words ‘Open your eyes within the mist.’ So I really focused on those lyrics. I wanted to make a character who is trying really hard to see through the foggy, unclear world.”
That idea returns to Hae-jun and his eyedrops, and his attempts to pierce that fog, but it also underlines the movie’s romantic themes, where Hae-jun and Seo-rae are both clumsily fumbling through their misunderstandings of each other. “It’s about loneliness, about trying to find someone to be with,” Park says. “It’s about trying to find someone to love, despite all the loneliness in your life.”
What does the ending of Decision to Leave mean?
[Ed. note: End spoilers for Decision to Leave ahead.]
The end of the movie is a shocker: Seo-rae chooses to bury herself alive in the wet sand on a rugged coastline as the tide comes in, so she either drowns or suffocates under the sand. She leaves behind a message for Hae-jun that will hint at her “decision to leave,” but not fully explain her plan. The movie ends with him chasing her clues, finding her car, and arriving too late to the scene of her suicide, where he finds no evidence about what she did, or even whether she’s dead.
Astute viewers will realize that in part, Seo-rae kills herself because she fell in love with Hae-jun at the moment where he fell out of love with her — she says as much in her message — but she understands they can never be together, because she’s a murderer. At the same time, she accurately uncovered his obsession with cold cases, and she’s leaving him with a mystery he’ll never be able to unravel — exactly how she died, and what happened to her body. By choosing a form of death that will keep him endlessly guessing, she’s guaranteeing he’ll always remember and obsess over her, the way she obsessed over him.
Park has often said what links his movies in his mind is the theme of responsibility — the way his characters do or don’t take responsibility for their own actions. In this case, Seo-rae’s way of accepting the consequences of her murders is a way of atoning that may leave viewers melancholy or angry, but Park feels it’s a significant choice for her to make either way.
In part, he says, that comes from the difference between accepting responsibility for your choices, and actually acting on that acceptance. “It comes from a deep sense of ethical perspective when someone says, ‘You need to feel a sense of responsibility for something,’” he says. “But it is a completely different topic to take action for what you feel responsibility about. This is something very different and difficult. So just feeling that sense of responsibility versus taking action for something you feel responsibility about — I want to emphasize that taking action is a kind of sacred act.”
“So for instance, if someone had committed a big sin and they cannot find a way for reparation, and they ended up committing suicide — we cannot call this action good, per se. But we can understand and even respect their emotions and thoughts, when they felt this was the only option left for them.
“So the characters in my films, whenever they’re taking responsibility for their actions, it’s not always successful, and it’s not always commendable. You might even say it’s stupid. But I do want to say that this commitment to action itself can be considered sacred.”
Decision to Leave is in theaters now.