Leaving a Self that No Longer Breathes

Rachel Jacobson
January 17, 2023

In “Decision to Leave,” a story that mainly takes place in Busan, there are grisly murders and overworked detectives at the foreground. A hiker is found at the bottom of a cliff and his beautiful, young wife, Seo-Rae, is left behind. Based on the trailer, I was expecting a true crime thriller, where the woman seduces the detective, Hae-Jun, who succumbs to her charm. At the surface, this is not fully off-base, but it’s more complex than that. What’s particular about the director’s approach was how he made a potential serial killer justifiably logical, where Seo-Rae is more of a victim to society than a predator. While the love story was twisted and, at times, disturbing, it was never met with my righteousness. For most of the film, I was rooting for the duo while nearly convinced it could never be, until it occurred to me, it might. There were openings in opportunity where their union could be accepted. When my moral values conflicted, the conditions met exclusion from what I constituted as ‘wrong.’ Although often I believed there was no way this could be sustained over time — one of them will grow tired of the other — they’d interact, devoid of lust and attraction but with an intimacy and familiarity of a married couple. Ironically, more attuned than Hae-Jun and his wife in his own marriage. I’m not surprised that there’s Oscar-buzz around this film. Its moral ambiguity, and historical/psychological undertones, merit the praise.

This isn’t Park Chan-Wook’s first film centered around couples who would otherwise be condemned in their historical contexts. With “Old Boy” as a revenge film more than a love story, Park plays with incestual tendencies. In “Handmaiden,” a period piece in Korea during the 1930s canvased by Japanese imperialism, a maid and lady fall in love. Park’s fragility tugs at our morality and, in turn, humanizes each character: the symbolic violence and scandal is only more polished in his recent piece. As a waltz between Japanese and Korean language in “Handmaiden,” a cultural barrier between Korean and Chinese is crossed and harnessed as a tool in “Decision to Leave.” Isolation and duality in Seo-Rae, a Chinese immigrant living in Korea, transcends from being only a minor detail to reflect the experience of immigrants in modern Korean society.

The ending of this film doesn’t pedantically drive a point home. It digs a hole in the sand and asks you to recover it, and the endeavor stays with you long after the movie is over. The final scene feels like Park’s response to critics for his fairytale-esque ending in “The Handmaiden.” He made the film slow and lingering. We don’t know the extent of who Hae-Jun or Seo-Rae are until the end, and for that there was less character development, but a veil pulled from their faces. There is a striking clue I return to that hinted toward the ending and revealed Seo-Rae’s true character. Her stark reaction to the exorbitant sushi and cafeteria food when questioned at the station in Busan and Ipo. Was Hae-Jun her savior or a naïve fool, Seo-Rae a victim who yearned for affection or a parasite? What I’ve been told from clinical psychologists is that in couple’s therapy, the pair is one individual — a single entity. The two people, a suspect and a detective, forge a power dynamic that is intersectional, often overridden by the dynamics of gender, where who holds power over the other changes with each scene. There were often moments where she beguiled to only be forgiven by authentic moments of vulnerability.

The closest we get to interiority is their voice recordings about and in each other’s company. Yet the film goes beyond plot through its reliance on gravitational gestures (Seo-Rae’s move to Ipo left unsaid, their reciprocal stalking, and longing, expressive eyes — uncomfortably in the presence of others), where I saw a tragedy, likened to Dorcas and Joe in Morrison’s Jazz, or how Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet unfold, between soulmates. There’s tragedy and sacrifice of one’s morality to lengthen their time together, and in return, preparations for entering irrecoverable space. The protagonists learn that there is no right, there are simply constraints imposed by the environments in which we are driven, where all we can do is react. And sometimes the greatest agency one can grant oneself is the decision to leave.

Park Chan-Wook’s 2022 film Decision to Leave is in theaters now.

Rachel Jacobson is a psychology doctoral student at University of Oregon. Her research and writing focus on multiple identity populations–in particular, the cusp at which ambiguity exists. Her writings have appeared in Inklette Magazine and Interlude Magazine.