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Decision to Leave / Die Frau im Nebel

Director: Park Chan-wook (South Korea). Year of Release: 2022

A shooting range. Two police officers are moaning that there aren’t enough homicides at the moment. Then they’re called to a high cliff from which a 60-year old rock climber has either thrown himself off, fallen, or been pushed. He is wearing expensive clothes and a Rolex, and he hit the cliff three times as he bounced his way down, smashing his face as he hit the rocks beneath. The hands of his watch are stuck at 2 minutes past 10, presumably the time of death.

The alpha male cop, Hae-Joon, carries the other one on his back as he climbs up the rock, Batman-style. He shrugs off the suggestion that they take the less intimidating back path to the top of the cliff. Hae-Joon is married to Jung-an, who lives in a different city, Ipo. They meet each week-end when they have either sex or a row. Hae-Joon suffers from insomnia, for which he takes eye drops and a series of stake-out jobs, which he may as well go on as he’s going to be awake anyway.

The widow of the dead climber, Seo-tae is a beautiful Chinese woman who is much younger than her ex-husband. Her speech keeps breaking into Mandarin as she says that her Korean is insufficient. The fact that “insufficient” isn’t quite the right word is typical. Seo-tae’s grandfather was big in the Korean independence movement, and she helped him win Korean citizenship. She is remarkably unmoved by the news of her husband’s death or the pictures of his damaged corpse.

Hae-Joon is immediately smitten with Seo-tae, which is a bit of a problem, as she is a good candidate for prime suspect. Instead of taking the traditional period of mourning, she returns to her job as a carer of elderly women, all of whom regard her as a substitute granddaughter. She justifies this by saying “living old people come before dead husbands”. Later, it is discovered that her husband had branded his initials into her skin, as he did with all his property.

As long as the case remains open, Hae-Joon’s interviews with Seo-tae will continue. Various evidence appears and disappears on people’s mobile phones, but neither cop nor witness seems keen to make this result in any resolution to the investigations. Hae-joon also puts his stake out experience to work, parking outside Seo-tae’s house, and staring in through binoculars. Seo-tae watches him watching her, and they develop a mutual complicity

In between interview sessions at the police station, Hae-Joon organises gourmet sushi boxes which are way beyond his normal budget. At one point, Seo-tae mentions that her husband inflicted scratches on her, one of which is at the top of her leg. As she starts to raise her skirt to show the detective, a police woman enters the room, causing detective and witness/suspect to spring back. It is all perfectly innocent, but both protagonists look deeply guilty.

About half way through the film, we jump forward a year, with Hae-Joon and his wife now living in Ipo, the coastal town where she’s still working at the local nuclear plant. Hae-joon has declared himself “completely shattered” by his experiences of the trial, not a good way for an insomniac to feel. He is looking for a job which consists to a large degree of trying to marshall the local turtles. One day in the market, they bump into Seo-tae, who introduces her new husband, a financier.

The next day, Hae-Joon has another murder case to solve – that of the financier husband. He confronts Seo-tae and asks why she followed him to Ipo. Oh, and what is this thing about her and dead husbands? This is leading up to a scene where we find out how he really died. Not for the first time in the film, we are led down one alley, only to be shown that things are not at all as we imagined them to be. I would tell you more, but there be plot spoilers.

A number of reviewers have compared Decision to Leave to Hitchcock, while missing out one key point. Like many Hitchcock films, this is a man’s man film which doesn’t come close to passing the Bechdel test. There are distinguishable female performances of women who have a mind of their own, but this is still a plot which is driven by the men. Seo-tae is an important character, but largely because of what she means to Hae-Joon.

Nonetheless while this is an important, and sad, comment on the current state of the film industry, this should not be the final judgement on Decision to Leave. Yes, it would probably have been better with more prominent leading parts, yes, it is a shame that the film is driven by the thoughts and desires of a man, but this is hardly the only film which is guilty of these sins. And, unlike many recent films, It has female characters who are articulate and not subservient.

Director Park Chan-Woo recently said in an interview: “it’s a love story, and also a detective drama. But what I really want to emphasise is that it’s a story about loss, that any adults will be able to relate to. Rather than treat it as a solid tragedy, I tried to express it with subtlety, elegance and humour.” And yes, the film contains all of these, but at times you do have the feeling that the film is trying to do too much, generally all at the same time.

Decision to Leave has a noirish sensibility and is beautifully shot. It’s of secondary importance that at times it’s not entirely obvious who is doing what and why, or that very little happens to push the plot forward. This is a film which is driven more by mood than plot. So, if you do go, just sit back and enjoy the ride – you’ll find a lot to enjoy if you look hard enough. But it is still too opaque for its own good and does not challenge the rule that few films should be longer than 2 hours.

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