Sunday, January 22, 2023

The mountains and the sea


Directed by Park Chan-wook
Written by Jeong Seo-kyeong and Park Chan-wook

Spoilers: moderate (maybe high)

 was almost twenty years ago, and in between there and here I've become very much a Park Chan-wook skeptic. I've always been willing to give anything made by the maniac who made Oldboy a chance*, but this openness has not been especially well-rewarded.  The only thing I've actively disliked was Stoker, Park's ill-judged attempt to jump into English-language cinema (every Korean director who gets big enough tries it, it seems, and yet, with due respect to the Bong Joon-ho fans, by my lights the one who's come the closest to actually succeeding was Kim Jee-woon, whose unambitious Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand at least hit its target).  But there's a whole lot of room between "active dislike" and "love," and as well-received as The Handmaiden was, "love" was not in the cards for me, and I'd given up hope I would ever love a Park film again.

As you've assuredly guessed by the way I've been talking, Park's very latest, Decision To Leave, has reminded me that there's always hope; it's absolutely terrific.  It's one of just three movies from 2022 I've already watched twice, and very much the kind of movie that compelled me to make the most out of a digital rental.  If part of the reason I watched it again is that it's maybe a little too obtuse in the details of its plotting (though never the broad strokes), I would say that's mostly in its favor, tooafter all, if one likes a movie enough to desire to experience it again, so as not to be even slightly confused by it, that's presumably a good thing, though "not leaving you bewildered and a little bereaved" was, of course, never Park's goal here.

It finds Park operating in his typical genre ambit (broadly speaking, "a violent thriller"), but more-or-less in opposition to his usual mode: he's never made a movie as gonzo as Oldboy since Oldboy, and I assume probably won't again (making a movie as gonzo as Oldboy would be pretty challenging even if you wanted to), but even in comparison to his 2010s works, this is notably restrained stuff.  It feels downright classical in its content, as pure an old-time noir as possible updated for the present dayit's more down to smartphones than anything else about it that it could not have been made as early as the 1940s, with the minorest cutsand despite the rambunctious formal experimentation it gets up to, it even feels classical in its style, albeit in reference to a different "classical period," with the surveilling cinematic language, chase montages, and Panavision-ratio architectural predlictions of 1970s paranoid thrillers serving as the sturdy basis for all of Park's more playful flourishes, of which there are a great many.

So: in Busan works sleep-deprived homicide detective Jang Hae-jun (Park Hae-il, hereafter Park H.), sometimes in combination with his more-temperamental and accordingly less-competent colleague Soo-wan (Go Kyung-po).  Hae-jun solves murdersor, frequently, does not solve murdersover the work week and reunites with his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun), a nuclear technician in distant Ipo, over the weekend, where they cling to a shell of a marriage that we can guess is hollow for reasons beyond mere separation.  It is not a hateful marriage, but Jung-an is just overbearing enough that we understand that tsking him about whether he's still smoking (he's actually not) and his health (she's a nuclear engineer who believes this qualifies her to insist on superficial Internet research-based remedies to her husband's ills) is the main way she relates to this marriage anymore.  It's always hard to tell, but it at least seems like she's a boring lay, too.  It occurs to me that this is a lot of specificity for a character who's in, like, five scenes; but Park and his ancient writing partner Jeong Seo-kyeong have managed a very carefully-written screenplay here.

This is the situation as it stands when Hae-jun gets the case of Song Seo-rae (Tang Wei), and which is not likely to survive her.  Seo-rae is the Chinese wife of a Korean bureaucrat found dead at the foot of an imposing rockface outside Busan; there is every indication that he fell, either by accident or as suicideso much indication that this was misadventure, in fact, and so little indication that it was spousal murder besides his history of abusing Seo-rae, that one is mildly surprised that the Busan police have the funding to pursue Seo-rae as a suspect, though in fairness, this is also a concern that's textually-raised.  It's really down to her acting a little too strangely and unmoved when she learns of her husband's demise, and changing her mind and asking to see the pictures of his corpse as it lay at the foot of the mountainthough Hae-jun likes this about her, and later will admit that her clear-eyed willingness to see things as they are was one of the things that drew him to her.  This is, of course, ironic, much like his apparent addiction to Visine.

That gets us to about the one-quarter mark; there is no real reason to soldier through the entire complex and twisty plot except perhaps to state that, if you're paying very close attention, there is rather less of a murder mystery here for us than for Hae-jun, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Seo-rae is manipulating the detective but also increasingly obvious she's not doing so just to get away with a crime.  Suffice it to say that things are startlingly reoriented about an hour inthere's a tendency to write about this film in such a way that it sounds like during the slightly-more-than-second half of this 139 minute movie they become a crime-solving Scooby Gang together (though there is about twenty minutes in the middle where they do), so to avoid that let's say that another mystery develops and Seo-rae is at the heart of it again.

I don't want to come off like the plot doesn't matter, which is why I have not used terms like "boilerplate noir" or even "femme fatale," because the plot is kind of a blast: "what" and "who" are only slightly in question (especially the second time around), but "how" and "why" rather more so, and Decision To Leave is a lot more about those "hows" and "whys," maybe especially the "whys," so that even the "hows" are provided a little obscurelypleasurably so, but certainly in ways that are demanding enough that it's worth mentioning it (and sometimes in ways that I'm not sure hold up entirely to the scrutiny Park and Jeong ask you to subject it to; there's not all that many cheats, but a number of conveniencesfor one example, you could reasonably ask, "why does an old lady who hasn't left the house in ten years even have a fitness app, and if she did why would it default to the flights-of-stairs screen?").  That obscurity is okay, for to some degree the obscurity is inseparable from the pleasure and the point: it's the "whys," ultimately, that are the most impenetrable mysteries of all, though you can certainly take a stab at them.

This is the brilliance of Tang's superb performance as the enigma who riddles a manthe best I've ever seen out of her and by an outright enormous marginasked to be seductive and fascinating, almost entirely as a personality defined by a collection of expressions, each revealing just enough to be intriguing.  She's deglammed to a degree remarkable for a woman whose PR photos are designed to make her still look like a teenaged fashion angel, here favored with only a few dead-on close-upsthat are almost all painfully short, as if looking at Tang Wei is somehow hard, yet they each have tremendous impact when they arriveand leaning, for the first time, into the cusp of her middle-age, in order to emphasize the ineffable weariness that's ground her down, that on one hand makes her a broken figure of sympathy, and on the other makes her a more appealing puzzle, an actual person with a lifetime behind her that can theoretically be figured out and solved for.  It's sexier than the alternative (for instance, Tang's career-derailing Lust, Caution, which was ages ago, and was the unsexiest porno ever made), though this is, in a sense, never principally about sex (and I would hope it wouldn't be, because my most salient problem with the movie is that it feels like a 40s romantic noir where they forgot to film a kiss to put in before the two-hour mark).  It's about seeing and being seen for the first time in a long time, maybe everwhich is, again, ironic, but even someone attempting to understand could be a novelty for both Hae-jun and Seo-rae, whether or not they each might have adversarial motives in doing so, or whether or not they actually succeed.

This is something Park makes absolutely sure you notice with some of his more quietly bombastic choices, with certain moments during Hae-jun's endless stake-outshonestly, I'm not sure what the cops expect to uncover with these stake-outsrendered by way of the dreamily-subjective, almost stageplay-like conceit of Hae-jun physically present in Seo-rae's space, though he's a thousand feet away.  It is, in fact, not always perfectly clear whose subjectivity this is, which is, I think, why it lands harder than this plain description probably makes it sound.  There's likewise a running... not quite gag, wherein Seo-rae (who claims her "Korean is insufficient") uses her phone's translator to say important or complicated things in Chinese, relayed in Korean by a robotic male voice.  It can be oddly intimate at the same time it is, obviously, distancing.  Tang, anyway, is giving just enough to put us right in Hae-jun's own position (Park H., incidentally, is quite as good in his much less attention-grabbing role), where we can believe we know Seo-rae; the film gives enough that we do in fact know her slightly better than Hae-jun does, and therefore prompts us to overestimate how much that is, which is a cunning little trick it plays on us.  I'm not sure the film ever lies to us, but the motif that sometimes joins Seo-rae, or the version of Seo-rae that exists in Hae-jun's head, a simple little mostly-woodwind composition by composer Jo Yeong-wook, is like wistful wondering, from years down the line when the pain has ebbed, translated into music.

I've made a deal about how what we have is Park retreating from the more outrĂ© elements of his style in some respects (this is a film with a not-inconsiderable body count, yet only one death onscreen), but it wouldn't do to distance this too much from Park's filmography, even Oldboy in particular: like that film (like the best parts of The Handmaiden, in fact, which in light of this I probably owe a rewatch), it remains a specific subgenre of thrillerrevenge thriller, erotic caper thriller, or detective noir thriller as the case may bethat's fundamentally more about the romance built out of lies by a pair of brittle, lonely people which, in the end, we might have cause to question, but we can't deny that it must have been the realest thing they ever had.  (I can't imagine it's actually a trend, but the 2021-2022 junction has been really outstanding for noirs that are more concerned with romantic obsession treated with extreme, heartrending generosity; for the record, if you didn't like Reminiscence, you don't have the right to like this.)  But it is, after all, called Decision To Leave; and while this title gets a drop in dialogue where it's a little more innocuous, this isn't a movie that has "innocuous" dialogue in the first place.  So it spoils Oldboy and The Handmaiden more than this, then, to remark that it's by some margin the saddest of the three.

There's a lot of pop fun in it, even so: Park hasn't surrendered his oddball predilections as a director, and on occasion "oddball" doesn't mean "good" (there's stuff that sounds frankly goofy, like "shots through a smartphone screen," that are not actually goofy in execution, and stuff that sounds goofy and absolutely is, like a POV shot through a corpse's eyes while ants crawl on the camera lens).  Mostly, Park is very disciplined, even as he makes a certain disorientation the goal; put briefly, it's edited funny.  We can be more descriptive (it is, I'd hazard, more of a "screenplay" thing than an "editing" thing as such, though it's down to Park and editor Kim Sang-bum that it comes off): there's a slipperiness with time here, manifesting in a profound dedication to arranging moments so that they play off one another more for meaning rather than strict chronology, and this self-reflecting property is true in really micro-scaled ways all the way into the macrostructure of a story that, essentially, obliges itself to play out twice.

It reminded me less of any particular motion picture I've ever seen than it did Alan Moore's Watchmen (it reminds me, then, a bit of Cloud Atlas, but it's a lot more jagged about it; I think Park only completely fucks it up once, when he shows us evidence of Seo-rae's physical abuse that doesn't even make it clear it's Seo-rae's body we're looking at, and we have only slight reason to know that it is; fortunately, this is very early and not very important).  It's not nearly so formally austere, nor quite so formally compulsive, about all this as Moore's comic book, but the purpose is pretty much the same, and the purpose of these visual matches both between shots and across timesometimes matches across whole hours of screentime, in fact (unless if you've seen it, I'm sure it would sound very weird for me to say, "that second time Hae-jun's shoe came untied, it broke my heart," but it's true)or the use of new shots to visually comment upon a line of dialogue that by itself has no great significance, or even discontinuous shots that uncannily, sometimes electrifyingly match the eyelines of the last one, is to insist on simultaneity, that there is no future except what is determined by the past.  There is, then, always this encroaching, dreadful sense that the end of all things must always be inherent in their beginnings, either as a direct repeat, or a fatalistic conclusion, or a reversed mirror-image.  (To indulge in "that shot!" criticism, very briefly: my favorite little thing is a hidden splitscreen that racks focus differently on Hae-jun and Seo-rae, so that on one side of the frame, their reflection in the mirror behind them is in focus, and on the other, the actual person is; and then it flips.)

This is a very useful thing for a cyclic tragedy to do, pushed a little further by the unstressed efficiency of a script that echoes ideas introduced earlier into unexpected and punishing inevitabilities, and further still by imagery that, for example, drops Tang into one of those aforementioned discontinuous shots, which is on one level about how she looks cute eating ice cream, but is more intentionally here to subliminally remind us of a Confucian parable she uttered earlier (or maybe uttered later? there is, anyway, more than one deployment of this set-up).  Here, her face and shoulders float almost graphically across Seo-rae's wallpaper, which is somehow both an endless mountain range and the ever-rolling tide of the sea.  Decision To Leave's curious construction does more than this, too: insisting on its unity of time and space, it insists, maybe even more forcefully, on its unity of identity between Hae-jun and Seo-rae, though, sometimes, frighteningly, between Hae-jun and Seo-rae's husband.  That does remain an open question, after all, and there is an utterly beautiful moment where this has become so impossible to ignore that Hae-jun, himself, is actually aware of it; and, in that moment, he would still rather die than not to trust her.  But there might be even worse things to be than a killer.  I'm not sure Decision To Leave answers every question, but then, some truths can only be faced alone.

Score: 10/10

*In disclosure, I've never seen I'm a Cyborg, But That's Okay.


  1. Man, your review is making me want to go watch Decision to Leave again again. This is another one I really like. Pre-PiB2, I had this as my second-favorite of the year behind EEAAO (haven't finalized where to slot PiB2), but had been wondering if it's a worth a revisit because some of my reservations had to do with how, as you say, it's a "little too obtuse in the details of its plotting." I had trouble following what was important a few times and likely missed some innuendos and connections that I'd probably better appreciate a second time through. I was very much struck by how it felt "classical," to use your word, but also filtered through smartphones and such in a way that felt meaningfully altered by their presence. Great, smart, well-constructed flick.

    1. Y'know, I could've sworn I'd seen that you'd seen it, but when I checked, it wasn't there.

      Is obtuseness Jeong Seo-kyeong's thing? Anyway, it does prompt me to wonder if I've been unnecessarily down on Park & Jeong (I didn't realize it, but the commonality with all of Park's post-Oldboy directorial work is his partnership Jeong, but in fairness it's not like I think his pre-Oldboy, non-Jeong effort Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance is great, either). I dunno, maybe obtuseness works for this story, or maybe it's just incumbent on me now to reevaluate everything.

    2. I saw it much earlier in the year when the screener first started floating around the digital ether: