Decision to Leave

[...] Hae-Jun Park is the spectator of the film he is making. Through him we see how the cinematic experience works.

The cinema of cinematic experience

The social divide between South Korea and China, the migration and the pressure of hegemonic culture, the eternal struggle between duty and love - or attraction - and a detective story that escalates into epic drama and romantic existentialism. These are all the (relatively known) ingredients that make the latest Park Chan-wook film simultaneously complex and spicy. The Korean director (with this film receiving Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival 2022) is certainly one of the few filmmakers that is (still) able to combine entertainment and essayistic authorship, but if I decide myself to write about Decision to Leave it is because I have the impression that, in watching it, its spectator creates a unique experience about their own spectatorship.

The cinematic space-time is this magic place where chronology becomes elastic, melting action and memory, presence and imagination, where we take advantage of a potentially ubiquitous gaze, spying behind the curtains, and knowing more than all or some of the protagonists. Now, in Decision to Leave, not only are we ourselves but also the main protagonist, the detective Hae-Jun Park, the subject of such cinematic experience. We see him present where he could only be in his imagination; his projections, anticipations, and memories are materialised and mixed up with the action. Sharp and disorienting narrative cuts push us into his associative feelings or, I would say, “cinematic” feelings, which are the actual place where the story can be followed. The slightly inane facial expression of the omnipresent actor Park Hae-il facing pretty much all kinds of situations bestows upon him the perfect “mask” that hypostasizes his figure as more (or less) than a hero/non-hero (a hero with weaknesses), that is to say a “cinematic hero”. Tang Wei’s highly expressive and astonishingly versatile actorship will impersonate his counterfigure - Seo-Rae - the mysterious woman who will bring life and authenticity, her cheating profile notwithstanding. She is in cinema, while he is the cinema “dispositive”; we see her in the film, and see the film in him.

This is the reason the detective Hae-Jun Park brings to us a sort of mirror experience of our own spectatorship. He is the spectator of the film he is making. Through him we see how the cinematic experience works. Concurrently, through him and this meta-cinematic identification, we will “import” his actions as our own’s. In this way, the self-reflective potential of our experience of cinema in watching to Decision to Leave is well balanced by our being entertained by an action movie. From this point of view, we understand how the accumulation of narrative turning points and coups-de-scène – which normally would weigh a film down – reveals itself beneficial in order to balance Hae-Jun Park’s introspective side, and the introspective journey into our own’s spectatorship.

This special perspective on Decision to Leave suggests an intriguing reading of the tragic finale: Park Chan-wook does not make us see the last “leaving” – and this sounds like a revenge of life, and its infinite reservoir of imagination in cinema, against the omnipotence of spectatorship. Hae-Jun Park – the spectator – will be destined to shout in no particular direction in front of the ocean. Seo-Rae’s absence will liberate the force of the uncontrolled in cinema. You may cry, Hae-Jun Park, life is bigger.


Screenings in Swiss cinema theatres


Decision to Leave | Film | Park Chan-wook | KOR 2022 | 138’ | Best Director at Cannes Film Festival 2022 | CH-Distribution: Filmcoopi

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First published: March 11, 2023