Open Your Eyes – Decision to Leave

Before I get started, a brief programming note. I’ve been playing catch-up for the past couple of weeks after catching a cold that turned into COVID. Thankfully I had no serious symptoms and the virus is already out of my system, but it definitely had the unwanted effect of fucking with my schedule for a solid week. As such, I’m scrambling a bit to get in all the movies I was planning to see before I was shut down, and to get the reviews out as quickly as possible before next weekend, when I will be volunteering as a poll worker for the November election. I’ll be doing at least four days of 12+ hours, and will have no energy for viewing or writing during that time.

I mention this now because we’re fully into Awards Season, and as such, the films that the studios will campaign for will be coming at a breakneck pace. I’ll do my best to get back up to speed now and stay ahead of things over the next two weeks, as I live in Los Angeles, which is the default “select city” for all the contenders to release early in order to confirm Academy eligibility before their scheduled wide releases in January. Today’s review is the first in my attempt to make up for lost time, as I normally try to see things as soon as they come out, but in this case I had to wait more than a week. Hopefully the backlog won’t get too bad, but nevertheless I appreciate you all bearing with me.

There have been a couple recent disappointments when it comes to mystery stories, particularly the likes of See How They Run and Amsterdam. A mixture of one-note characters, predictable plotting, and an unfortunate commitment to style over substance has taken a lot of the fun out of the genre, especially when it comes to playing along and trying to solve the case from the comfort of your seat. You don’t always need to have the clues hiding in plain sight, but there’s great enjoyment and entertainment in taking the journey with the main characters, figuring out their motivations, and seeing how their respective traits can aid in the resolution. Sometimes it even leads to a more satisfying conclusion because certain elements almost necessarily obfuscate the process in the name of deeper insight and understanding.

That’s certainly the case for Decision to Leave, the latest from Korean auteur Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden, etc.) and South Korea’s official entry for International Feature. While the underlying mystery of this neo-noir is fairly straightforward, Park uses his innumerable skills to craft a deeply cerebral, intimate, and compelling tale of empathy and obsession that stands as one of the best films of the year.

Park Hae-il gives a masterful performance as Hae-jun, an insomniac detective in Busan who has quickly risen through the ranks because of his ability to solve high profile murders. He and his rough-around-the-edges partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) are in the middle of one such case when they’re called to a suspicious scene, where an experienced mountain climber has fallen to his death. Hae-jun is meticulous about every detail, so much so that when the widow, Seo-rae (a transcendent Tang Wei), is called in to identify the body, she instantly becomes a murder suspect because he can see that she has her late husband’s monogram tattooed on her almost like a cattle brand, hinting at a possibly abusive relationship that ended with foul play.

There’s something about Seo-rae that Hae-jun can’t quite put his finger on, but he is nonetheless intrigued, so he begins to dig deeper into her past while also monitoring her movements. His investigation is gorgeously shown as this massive paradox of getting closer and closer to the truth while trying (and failing) to maintain a professional distance. This is done through some absolutely inspired directorial touches on Park Chan-wook’s part. Despite her heritage, Seo-rae was raised in China, so her Korean is “insufficient,” as she is wont to say, requiring her phone to translate some of her more specific speech, which intentionally removes the nuance of tone and inflection, leading Hae-jun – and us in the audience – to wonder if she’s being robotic and detached, and creating an emotional distance even when they’re standing right next to one another. Hae-jun tails her and stakes out her apartment, but even before Seo-rae catches him, she talks as if she knows he can hear her, somewhat taunting the detective while also expressing a pained yearning for his protective instincts. A recurring visual has Hae-jun applying eye drops because he’s constantly awake, a strong clue that his perception may be both figuratively and literally clouded.

And yet, the two operate in a very dark harmony together. There’s a lovely scene early on where, taking a break from an interview/interrogation, the two enjoy an expensive sushi dinner, and then clean up in this rhythmic lockstep that is choreographed beautifully to hint at a deeper rapport of their personalities. This continues as Hae-jun becomes less and less objective and finds himself emotionally enthralled with Seo-rae. There’s a platonic intimacy that forms between the two that could easily progress to the erotic despite the almost antiseptic nature of the proceedings, as each seems to provide something missing for the other, even though they’re on both sides of a potential homicide. Is Seo-rae a femme fatale, a misunderstood victim, or the key to Hae-jun’s personal salvation? Is she all of the above? Park asserts that these questions might be far more important than whether or not she actually killed her husband, while still committing to giving the investigation the proper weight for any of this to matter.

This seeming contradiction of physical and emotional proximity extends to the third act, when Hae-jun moves to the more remote town of Ipo to be with his wife, played by Lee Jung-hyun (he previously commuted to Busan and rented a small apartment to live in for work, coming home to her on the weekends) to live a quieter, more relaxing life dealing with low-level provincial crime. However, a second murder that could also implicate Seo-rae forces her back into his life, only reinforcing this wonderful idea of things becoming closer the further away one tries to get, and vice versa. It leads to the resolution for both mysteries feeling not only earned, but an essential part of our collective experience.

A lot of this comes down to Park’s expertise as a visual storyteller. All the pieces are there to put things together logically from the very beginning, which gives the audience the option of detaching themselves long enough to test their sleuthing skills. The cinematography and score are put to excellent use, giving us just enough both visually and aurally to keep us glued to the screen. The solitary nature of mountain peak landscapes is juxtaposed with the uniformity of beach sand leveled out by the incoming tides.

In what I feel is the best element of all, editor Kim Sang-bum employs some fantastic techniques with pans and composites to place Hae-jun and Seo-rae in the same room even when they don’t occupy the same physical space. For example, as Hae-jun spies on Seo-rae at home, we cut from the external shot to see her inside her apartment with Hae-jun standing next to her, walking with her, observing every fine detail he can. As the camera follows Seo-rae into another room, Hae-jun is already there waiting for her. It is off the charts great, and it only aids this recurring theme of how obsessively close Hae-jun gets to his target.

This is what a great film noir mystery should be. It’s not just figuring out if a crime was committed and who’s responsible, but making sure we as viewers have enough information – both in the people involved and the facts of the case itself – to actually give a damn. There are no convoluted twists, only natural progressions. There’s no cliché cat and mouse game, but instead a thoughtful exploration of our leads, seeing how their dynamic shifts along with their subjective needs, in situations where either one could have the upper hand in a given moment. There isn’t a flashy, bombastic denouement, but rather an examination on truth, compassion, and the blurred lines between reality and simulacrum as we strive for the “right” ending, even if it isn’t necessarily the happy one. Park goes to great lengths to make sure we see the whole picture, and in doing so creates a situation where it’s impossible to look away.

Grade: A

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Is Korean cinema finally getting the mainstream attention it deserves? What do you do to help you sleep at night? Let me know!

4 thoughts on “Open Your Eyes – Decision to Leave

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