Decision to Leave
(Moho Film, 2022)
A series of off-screen gunshots fire over the opening credits of Park Chan-wook’s much-anticipated Decision to Leave (2022). Then, two detectives appear, musing over their lack of murder cases while at a firing range. This misleading suggestion of violence, paired with the immediate verbal clarification that there actually isn’t any, serves as a witty meta commentary on the place of Decision to Leave within Park’s filmography—which boasts a generous amount of ghastly violence. In fact, Park and his longtime screenwriting partner Chung Seo-kyung explore the unknowability of the other as a theme by using a series of defied expectations as the film’s narrative engine. In particular, Park and Chung are interested in how language—as well as different modes of communication such as the iPhone—can mediate the unknowable.
The importance of language in Decision to Leave is evident from the get-go when Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese caretaker, is called in to identify her deceased husband Ki Do-soo (Yoo Seung-mok) at a forensic lab after he was found dead in the mountains. Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), the married detective assigned to the case, is taken aback by Seo-rae’s slightly wooden but nonetheless fluent Korean when she mutters “at last.” Hae-jun requests that his work partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) use elementary Korean to clearly relay information regarding an autopsy procedure to Seo-rae. Amusingly, his request implies that Soo-wan should use as few Sino-Korean words, the familiarity indicating one’s proficiency in Korean. Hae-jun is confident that the intelligible and precise exchange of information will lead him to the truth without fail.
It does not take long before Hae-jun learns that he has falsely assumed Seo-rae’s unfamiliarity with Sino-Korean vocabulary. His puzzlement only grows when he finds the evidence that Do-soo had committed domestic violence against Seo-rae. While he understands that Seo-rae married Do-soo out of practicality—securing her residential permit in Korea—he is unable to grasp why she put up with the cruelty. The mystery surrounding Seo-rae soon turns his mere curiosity into a romantic obsession. During one interrogation, Seo-rae informs the detective that she prefers the sea to the mountain. He, too, is drawn to the sea, and by extension, to the woman whose shape constantly disintegrates and comes together ephemerally. Determined to unravel the object of his desire, the detective tails her and scrutinizes her from afar—not unlike Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954). As if to remedy the inadequacy of verbal interviews as an investigative tool, Hae-jun wields his iPhone, Apple Watch, and polygraph in his attempt to infiltrate what he perceives to be her authentic self.
Love presents itself like a house of mirrors in Decision to Leave. Misunderstandings and miscommunications lurk in every corner of Hae-jun’s and Seo-rae’s forbidden relationship. One night, Hae-jun manages to record Seo-rae’s poetic Chinese monologue addressed to a stray cat she takes care of. When run through a translation software, the end of her speech is rendered in Korean as follows: “bring me the heart [as in the organ] of that kind detective.” She later corrects the software error by clarifying that what she meant was his feelings. The Chinese word 心 (xīn) means both things in Korean. Once the police conclude that Do-soo has died in an unfortunate accident and close the case, Hae-jun and Seo-rae share many intimate moments outside the confines of the police-suspect dynamic. At one point, he tells her, “I always do my best to see things as they are,” and in that moment, he seems convinced that he sees Seo-rae for who she is. However, the romantic bliss turns out to be painfully brief due to a development in the case that raises the detective’s suspicion of Seo-rae’s affection throughout the investigation. Yet again, she is an unknowable other who, in Hae-jun’s estimation, has feigned her affection to undermine the investigation.
During a later investigation involving Seo-rae, Hae-jun keeps “mistaking” her blue dress for a green one. Her dress is in fact turquoise, so Hae-jun’s confusion is understandable. More crucially though, in old Korean—the kind that Seo-rae speaks—the word “blue” denotes both blue and green. Even today, it is not uncommon for some young Korean millennials to refer to green traffic lights as the “blue” light. In this sense, Hae-jun’s confusion signifies that, perhaps involuntarily, he tries to mirror Seo-rae by seeing the world through her peculiar use of Korean. For the first time, Hae-jun withdraws himself from the position of an authority figure presiding over a linguistic panopticon, and puts himself in Seo-rae’s shoes. Language is, as Martin Heidegger notes in Letter on Humanism, “the house of being.” Only when Hae-jun mirrors Seo-rae’s Korean, does language let him into her “house,” and foster intimacy and a genuine understanding between them.
Just as Scottie pursues Madeleine with maddening obsession in Vertigo, Hae-jun, too, chases after Seo-rae in the film’s final act. At one point, Seo-rae tells Hae-jun about a compromising voice memo of him saying “I love you.” “When did I say that?” Hae-jun asks. Seo-rae responds in Mandarin, “My love began when yours came to an end,” before hanging up on him. The switch to the native tongue in her final moment is indicative of her resolute determination to take her fate into her own hands. It also suggests that she would rather remain unknown to Hae-jun than to be “understood.” As much as language can communicate and elucidate information, it can also obscure and distort. Decision to Leave illustrates for us how language can both nurture and sever intimacy with frightening efficiency.