Many major directors have a film in their recent body of work in which they come to terms with phones, and their impact upon the experience of cinema. Decision to Leave is Park Chan-wook’s version of that film, a meditation on the future and endurance of cinema in the face of mobile technologies. Narratively, this plays out from the perspective of Hae-jun, a detective played by Park Hae-il, who is faced with two very different types of case in his home town of Busan. The first involves a criminal cartel; the second a government employee who falls to his death during a mountain climb. Most of the film is spent on the second case, as Hae-jun investigates Seo-rae, the man’s widow, played by Tang Wei, and soon falls in love with her. However, this case, which is more unconventional, and forms the core of the film, only fully ramifies when set against the first case, and the way in which Park shoots and frames it.
For the most part, the case involving the criminal cartel adheres to regular police procedure, and unfolds against scopic and panoramic vantage points. The key scenes take place on the top of buildings, themselves on the top of mountains, with sprawling 360-degree views of Busan. The scenes also tend to unfold either as chases or standoffs, both tropes that emphasise physical distance, and are generally removed from mobile digital technology (the first chase takes place after an encounter at an internet café, a relic of the pre-mobile world). Finally, these scenes are highly embodied, and typically end with hand-to-hand combat, evoking the stylised postures and martial arts echoes that suffused Park’s earlier filmography.
In other words, the first crime narrative plays as a series of ascents that reveal more and more of Busan, and invite the audience to map their position in the cityscape. By contrast, the second case involves a man who fell from a mountain face, a sudden blurring and foreclosure of the detached distance that unfolds in the first narrative. As a result, the narrative core of the film, which revolves around this mountaineering death, largely eschews the dramatic sightlines of the cartel material. All of a sudden, the mise-en-scene is full of mobile technology, or surrogates for mobile technology, from the mobile that Hae-jun uses to photograph the victim, to the victim’s own mobile, to the mobiles surrounding the victim, such as that of his mother, who uses her device to play the same song every day. Even when phones aren’t present, the characters spend most of their time scrutinising objects close to their eyes, to the point where visuality is subsumed into tactility, and the expansive vistas of the cartel chases are absorbed back into a more emergent and ambient textural perception.
This quickly transforms the eyes themselves from transparent vehicles for vision to textural interfaces. Hae-Jun periodically pauses his work to place drops in his eyes, as if trying to prevent them becoming just another inanimate, or autonomous, interface. At the same time, Park treats mobile devices like eyes, and provides them with POV shots. He starts by showing us the world from the victim’s lifeless eyes, which have now become a pair of screens for ants to crawl over, and proceeds to POV shots from mobiles, laptops, data banks and other digital devices. For Hae-jun, differentiating this space between eye and device is the core of police work. Midway through the film, he reflects that at least half of the corpses he sees arrive with their eyes open, and that his task is to understand the import of that final gaze upon death. Hae-jun expresses his fixation with this threshold through his obsession with sushi, and with the texture of sushi, which he measures by how acutely it maintains the presence of the living organism. Sushi and phone technology quickly converge over the course of the film, culminating in a meal when Hae-jun finally decides to devote all his time to the second case.
These close-range interfaces culminate with the flamboyance of the mountain where the victim dies. At first, this looks like a regular peak, but when we reach the top for the first time, we realise that it rises so steeply and dramatically from all sides that it is basically nothing but texture. The mountaineering film craze of the last few years has been partly about the challenges of remaining mindful at short-range interfaces, and so it is here as well. We learn that the victim spent two decades of his career in a government job, staring “blankly at faces and passports over and over again.” Numbed by that short-range attention, he turned his skills to the mountain surface, much as he embossed every object that he kept on his person with the same highly textured initials. This boring government job was a historical precedent to the more general situation that the characters in the film seem to experience – one of being unable to focus beyond the short-range visual threshold demanded by mobile media.
As a result, nothing feels genuinely far away in Decision to Leave, which is unusual for what amounts to a stakeout and surveillance film. Whenever Park sets up vast sightlines, they typically collapse into textural proximities, usually through phone or dream sequences. Similarly, whenever the camera tries to insist on the primacy of sight, tactility comes to the fore, evoking a media regime that is more haptic than visual. It’s as if Park is trying to conceive of widescreen cinema in an era where our eyes have evolved to only register close-range phenomena. This pushes the screenplay into ever more recursive mystifications – dream upon dream upon dream – to try and recapture that sense of visual depth, which can now only be approximated by narrative density. In one scene, for example, Hae-jun starts watching Seo-rae, the victim’s widow, through binoculars, only for Park to cut seamlessly to a dream sequence in which he wanders around her apartment, processing its textures at close range. When he eventually calls her, still watching on the binoculars, we cut just as fluidly to them talking in person, as both sight and hearing are again collapsed into this new tactility.
As that sequence might suggest, Hae-jun’s fascination with this cusp between cinema and new media quickly centres on Seo-rae, and quickly deforms regular police procedure. When Hae-jun first interviews Seo-rae, he relies on the sightlines built into the interrogation room, which depends upon them sitting across a table from each other, symmetrically organised on either side of the recording device. However, phones quickly offset this visual scheme. First, Seo-rae uses Google Translate to show him one of her favourite Confucius quotes. Then, she moves beside him to show him photographs of her father, also on her phone, and to explain that he was Korean, even though she grew up in China, and emigrated in her early twenties. Rather than containing and circumscribing the interview, and the image, phones enable a rampant and anarchic texturality that confounds agency. Even medium shots and establishing shots can’t be relied upon, since focus always pulls rapidly to phones, or phone surrogates.
This dynamic has a political as well as a mediatised dimension, since it quickly becomes synonymous with Seo-rae’s complex position at the cusp of Chinese and Korean cultures. Just as the case unleashes a dramatic texturality that can’t be contained, so it releases a chaotic history of Chinese-Korean relations that defies strict border control. The unruly history between the two countries exceeds visibility, but ramifies texturally – as something you feel more than see, so close at hand that you can only sense it in the ambience of the film itself. The most mercurial textures of Decision to Leave, and those least available to an audience like myself who are watching it on subtitles, are the interstices between Chinese and Korean. Before Hae-jun has any concrete sense of Seo-rae’s involvement with the case, he intuits her association by the ease with which she speaks certain Korean words, despite being Chinese.
In such a textural environment, the ideal mechanism of surveillance is not the phone but the smart watch, a recording device that plugs straight into the skin – and Decision to Leave is ultimately more attuned to the age of the smart watch. Even when we see the world from the POV of mobiles, the data flow and screen design looks closer to watches. It’s a watch, too, that segues Hae-jun’s stakeouts into a full-blown romance with Seo-rae, one that proceeds as texturally as you might expect. In a burnished montage sequence, they rub each other’s hands, apply lip gloss to each other, and bang a drum at an ancient temple, before Park shifts to a noirish voiceover that momentarily suggests the visual distance of a pre-mobile crime narrative, especially since it involves Hae-jun reflecting upon Seo-rae’s character. However, we’re simply hearing the recording of his case notes – and so is she, so are both of them, plugged into the recording on a pair of wireless headphones as he plays it through his mobile.
Since Seo-rae occurs at this increasingly eroticised cusp between cinematic and smart watch regimes, it makes sense that the twist, and the proof of her involvement in her husband’s death, cements this cusp as well. Hae-jun reaches this conclusion by triangulating the data from three phones – his, Seo-rae’s, and her husband’s – to arrive at the top of the mountain himself, and solve the case. The first step is seeing anomalous biodata on Seo-rae’s mother-in-law’s phone, and then realising that the two women have the same phones, meaning Seo-rae could have switched phones on the day of the death. The second step is making his way up the mountain, using a video that Seo-rae’s husband posted to YouTube. The final step is recognising that the biodata on his phone exactly matches the biodata on Seo-rae’s mother-in-law’s phone. The longest POV shot from a phone occurs as Hae-jun reaches the peak, the most flamboyantly physical space in the film. As physical and digital regimes collide, Hae-jun realises what happened: Seo-rae pushed her husband over as soon as he reached the peak.
This fusion of the ascents of the first crime narrative, and the rapid descent of this crime narrative, was already foreshadowed in the cartel thread, which involves a character leaping off a building in a similarly traumatic fall to Seo-rae’s husband. Even then, though, Hae-jun witnessed the suicide at first hand, meaning that he had closure. While his revelation on top of the mountain brings closure of a different kind, it also decisively closes off the possibility for visual totality, and the accompanying motif of ascent. So precisely does Seo-rae time her crime that she collapses her husband’s descent into his ascent, confounding any distinction between the two. No surprise, then, that we now learn the top of the mountain is nicknamed Oil Peak, since it has become the slipperiest and most mercurial space in the film, a zone where cinema has failed to contest or negotiate its relation with the tactility of mobile technology.
The most eccentric feature of Decision to Leave may be Park’s own decision to leave this first half behind, in favour of an elliptical and elusive second half that almost replays this dialogue between cinema and mobile media as farce. The action shifts to Ito, a smaller Korean town, where Hae-jun has relocated with his wife after believing that Seo-rae committed suicide – until she turns up, with another husband in tow, who also dies. At times, this second act plays like Hae-jun’s fantasy of replaying the first act, but with a better division of visual and tactile labour. He remains resolutely on his side of the interview table this time, gets Seo-rae fast food instead of sushi, and only takes out his smart phone for a cursory snap, so that witnesses can identify her. Meanwhile, as if to parody this process, Park translates the imagery and influences of the film into a balder and more overt register, from the clear nods to Vertigo and Basic Instinct, to a series of comic POV shots from a series of lifeless fish-eyes as they sit in a market, where Hae-jun’s wife “beeps” them one after another like the keys on her phone.
To that extent, Hae-jun’s quest, and Park’s approach, contradict one another, resulting in an even more pervasive fusion of film and mobile technology, and an even more promiscuous dissolution of Chinese and Korean culture. By the end, both thresholds cease to be legible, resulting in two overdetermined scenes that don’t conclude so much as exhaust the film. In the first, Seo-rae takes Hae-jun to a mountain that her parents promised would always be hers, a foothold in Korea that transcended her Chinese heritage. Here, she rehearses and accelerates all the major beats of the film, shining a flashlight straight into Hae-jun’s eyes as if to both appreciate them as eyes and blind them into interfaces. In the second of these exhaustive scenes, Seo-rae travels to a remote beach, builds a massive hole in the sand, which she piles into a miniature mountain, and lies in it until the tide appears to drown her. Hae-jun arrives soon after, calling out her name, but unaware that she is only metres away.
Earlier in the film, both Seo-rae and Hae-jun told each other to take phones with evidence of their romance, and throw them into the sea. Since the mobile is apparently insurmountable, Seo-rae throws herself into the sea, even as she recreates the mountain where her husband died, in one last bid for the physical world, for a cinematic distance that might give her romance with Hae-jun space to luxuriate into something more. But the mountain is made of sand, the tide destroys it, and the film ends with Hae-jun wandering inchoately through the rising water. Like Decision to Leave, he’s caught in transition, in a space that defies clear representation, and so can only be evoked as an ongoing and open process – a process Park converges with more conventional crime procedural for one of his most dissonant visions, driven by his own indecision about whether to leave cinema for a more mobile, tactile future.