I love Decision to Leave. It's the best movie I've watched in 2022, and I will go so far as to say that it is a masterpiece, though not the first by Park Chan-wook. The film plays with feelings as never before and presents a truly impressive control of the elements that we rarely have the pleasure of being treated to in cinema.
It's not necessarily an easy film – it requires 100% concentration. It does ask us to get involved in it in the same way that Choi Min-sik's character got involved with that octopus in Oldboy. There can be no distractions, cell phones or parallel thoughts. If you want to be rewarded with one of the most remarkable neo-noir stories in history, with a beautiful score, great cinematography and perfect editing, you must give it everything you can.
However, this essay I am constructing is not a film critique. What I want to explore in this article is Park Chan-wook's decision to leave the draconian elements at a minimum. It’s one of his least extreme films, both in terms of violence and sexual content – which doesn't seem to be a mere coincidence.
Before the title card, there is a dialogue between Jang Hae-joon (the detective and main character) and his wife – Jeong-ahn – that says much more than meets the eye. Putting it into context, they are a couple who are only together on weekends. Jang Hae-joon works in Busan during the week and Jeong-ahn is an engineer in the sleepy town of Lipo, where her husband joins her every weekend.
Jeong-ahn: "Our neighbour, Samantha."
Jang Hae-joon: "Yeah."
Jeong-ahn: "She's pretending to be worried about me, but secretly embarrassing me. She said that six of the couples were seriously considering divorce over the weekend and asked me if I'm okay."
Jang Hae-joon: "So what did you say?"
Jeong-ahn: "I said 55% of sexless couples get divorced and asked her if she's okay."
The title card appears and, although we know what kind of plot awaits us, we don't immediately understand how sex – or the lack of it – will be one of Park Chan-wook's most prominent statements.
Anyone familiar with the South Korean screenwriter and director knows that he is not shy about putting sex at the forefront of his stories. Oldboy uses it as a central element, not only as an expression of the feelings of those characters but also as a fundamental element of repulsion when the ending connects all the dots. In Thirst, sex is the maximum expression of a capital sin and symbolizes all the desires of a priest who has lost his faith and gives himself to human pleasures from the moment his needs become less...human. The Handmaiden features some of the longest and most intense sex scenes in recent years, once again banking on repressed feelings and the mutual carnal desire that is evident in several scenes even before sex is consummated.
When Decision to Leave was announced as a thriller with a strong romance component and two attractive actors in the lead roles – Park Hae-il and Tang Wei – few would have anticipated that sex would not be a key component in his work. Not having sex scenes doesn't mean the movie is asexual – on the contrary. The conversations about sex do not end in the opening scene and will always follow the couple established at the beginning of the film. That's why it's clear that the lack thereof is no random fluke. It also doesn't take away from the romance, considering the fact that it is probably the sexiest movie of the year.
The detective's wife hints that regular sex – "we'll do it every week, even when we hate each other" – is proof enough of the couple's strength. Still, the only time their sex is presented to us – without nudity – is when we see that the connection between the two is not as intense because Jang Hae-joon's head travels to other places.
When the closeness between the detective and Song Seo-rae, a woman suspected of her husband's death, becomes clear, we have some clues that their connection could lead to something more physical. During the interrogation, Seo-rae doesn't hide it when she looks at the detective's wedding ring, defying him, almost asking him "what does that mean?". When the detective removes his belt in a scene at the suspect's home, Seo-rae's expression tells us that she anticipates that this could have sexual implications. There is desire, but also some apprehension in her expression and nothing goes any further.
The truth is that both of these people are aware of their attractiveness and don't have any problems when it comes to sex. The detective has a faithful wife and she is also attractive, and sex – as we have heard via their conversations – is not lacking. Seo-rae is aware of her appearance and has a charming personality, her appearance and joviality are several times pointed out as the only reasons that led her husband to look at her in what was an unconventional marriage.
What the detective and the suspect see in each other goes beyond sexual desires. It goes beyond what we see on the outside. It also goes beyond just seeing themselves as "detective" and "suspect.” As the relationship between the two unfolds, it becomes apparent that the connection between them is much deeper. They find attractiveness in each other's comfort, in the fact that they share the same physical space, and breathe the same air, even if that doesn't translate to sex in the physical sense.
Song Seo-rae sees Jang Hae-joon as a complete human being. She hears what he has to say about his job, about what he does, but also how he feels, how he lives and what bothers him, trying to help. On the other hand, she also realizes that she gets from him something that she hasn't had in previous relationships – "you are classy, as a modern man" – and doesn't want to let go of someone who sees her as something more than a trophy. Someone who doesn't want to lose any of who she is, even if it's only represented by a simple photograph of Seo-rae distracted by mundane tasks.
Song Seo-rae often looks quite lost. He – organized, methodical, rule-abiding, perfectionist – knows perfectly well he should not fall into that temptation. He shouldn't because he has a marriage to protect and because it goes against all his professional ethics. He would never do it for "just a pretty woman", but he certainly didn't count on his heart playing tricks on him. When the detective observes the suspect, he does not do so with a sexual lens. What seduces him is not seeing her stripping off her clothes or in attractive poses. What seduces him are the small gestures, her way of being, her smell, and how she looks at him. The relief when the detective realizes he is free to see and treat Seo-rae as anything other than a suspect is obvious. He is finally free to feel – at least, from a professional standpoint.
Although the statement about sex is more evident than the one about violence, we cannot say that the latent lack of violence is also just by coincidence. The initial crime investigated by Jang Hae-joon involves violent criminals. Later, Song Seo-rae is also involved in a web that includes gang activities. There was no lack of plot threads to see the raw violence that Chan-wook portrayed in the so-called "revenge trilogy" or in films like Thirst.
However, here the violence practically boils down to a chase scene with minimal bloodshed that is basically background noise given the perspective of the scene. Soon after, the Jang Hae-Joon demonstrates his position on the use of violence, getting angry with his partner for using force in a context in which it was not necessary. At a certain point in the 3rd act, the disposition of a body in a swimming pool can also be seen as something violent, but it acts more like a declaration of desperate love.
These were meaningful Park Chan-wook's choices. What he intends with Decision to Leave is something more profound. It's not the external wounds, or shock for shock’s sake, but for what we feel. He intends to reach our interior and reach the most fundamental human senses. As a result, the film communicates a different type of violence and nudity. The nakedness of our feelings, the violence of what we say and do in the name of love. The ending is a form of violence that will last through time. They are not marks of punches or kicks that heal through proper care. These are wounds that will linger for a lifetime.
Park Chan-wook wanted to make a love story, not an affair story. He wanted, above all, to make a film about relationships. Whether for what the characters feel or for what they make us feel, everything constructed is based on pure emotion. Wrong perhaps, forbidden at times, but certainly pure. And this purity is as unexpected as it is necessary for the grandeur of this masterpiece.