I spent the last couple of days watching movies. Notably I watched Park Chan-wook’s film The Handmaiden, which is like a period heist film and highly enjoyable. Then I watched his most recent film: Decision to Leave, which is showing up on a bunch of best-of-the-year lists. (I signed up for a 7-day trail of Mubi to watch this and there is not a single other thing that appeals to me on that service.)
Park is a very visually talented director and this film is no exception: it’s beautiful and melancholy. But it also is supposed to be a romance, in the 19th century sense of the word: lush, emotional, passionate, dramatic. And it really isn’t any of those things. I think on purpose. The main character Hae-jun is a detective who is gentle, considerate, meticulous. His love interest Seo-rae is serious and dispassionate. Park is deliberately undermining tropes here in order to obscure what’s happening. Fog and mist are ubiquitous themes, both visually (Hae-jun is constantly wetting his eyes with eye drops to clear his vision) and sonically (the film’s theme music is a classic Korean pop song called The Mist.)
Like Parasite, there’s actually a bunch here that is lost in translation for English speakers. Seo-rae is a Chinese immigrant to Korea and apparently speaks a formal, stilted Korean that she picked up by watching period dramas on TV. This spoiler-filled article by Polygon based on an interview with Park talks about how her Korean seems too precise and with odd word choice to native speakers, but upon reflection reveals itself to have layers of subtle meaning. Hard to convey with subtitles. (This goes two ways. The title of the film in Korean literally means “Decision to Break Up” which has none of the ambiguity that “Decision to Leave” does in English.)
Ultimately though, I didn’t really like the film. I think it takes bold risks with its themes, but it didn’t work for me. I think its main failing was that I couldn’t get invested in any of the characters, so also didn’t trust their emotional attachments to each other. Still, like all Park films, it’s very compelling and watchable and fascinating.