Not exactly three hours, but this episode is still pretty long. So, it has chapters.
- 00:00:00 — Opening
- 00:07:10 — Stability without the charm of meaning
- 00:22:54 — Marriage and affairs
- 00:35:30 — Humans, suckers for meaning
- 00:44:33 — Edited puzzles
- 00:54:33 — The Other Woman
- 00:59:09 — Co-puzzling
- 01:06:50 — Foreign language pattern matching and being in sync
- 01:31:10 — Insomnia and the meaning of life
- 01:55:43 — Old puzzle, new puzzle, and the final scene
- 02:14:14 — Some lines from a poem
Hello, everyone. I am Ithaka. And this is Sponge, a podcast where we absorb elements from the world to form a perspective of our own and find beauty.
The theme for today’s episode is this: when we’re presented with the option to find meaning through play, meaning that solely comes from stability swiftly loses ground. That is what I absorbed from “Decision to Leave,” a movie directed by Park Chan-wook.
Spoiler alert, everyone. Spoiler alert. “Decision to Leave,” directed by Park Chan-wook, is a fictional work. In this episode, there will be mentions about events that happen throughout the entirety of the movie. If you plan to watch “Decision to Leave” and do not want spoilers, do not listen to this episode at this time.
Before we proceed, a heads-up. Because this episode is so long, I have included timecodes in the show notes. Also, as always, there is a link to the full transcript in the show notes as well. If you want to skim through the content of this episode, or if you want to jump to a particular section, please refer to the show notes.
Now, to the movie.
Let me, first of all, read the blurb for this movie for you. I got this from MUBI, the site where I watched it.
Quote, “From a mountain peak in South Korea, a man plummets to his death. Did he jump, or was he pushed? When detective Hae-joon arrives on the scene, he begins to suspect the dead man’s wife Seo-rae. But as he digs deeper into the investigation, he finds himself trapped in a web of deception and desire.” End quote.
This is a beautiful, beautiful movie, folks. You may know director Park Chan-wook from the “Oldboy” fame. But that movie was released in 2003, and it is already 2023. In the two decades since “Oldboy,” Park Chan-wook directed so many more wonderful movies. Methinks that he is one of the few contemporary directors who have been blessed with both commercial and critical success.
In the non-Korean-speaking world, Mr. Park seems to have this image in which he leans more toward the critical side than the commercial side. But I believe that it is merely an impression formed due to the sheer mystery of a language as unfamiliar as Korean—unfamiliar, from the perspective of a largely English/Hollywood-dominated mainstream movie industry. In comparison, in Korea, oh, Mr. Park’s movies, they are absolutely mainstream, absolutely commercially successful. No doubt about it. His works are beloved, and that love isn’t only expressed through warm fuzzy feelings in many many people’s bellies; that love is also expressed through the glorious glittering of well-deserved box office earnings.
And me, personally, I am partial to his movies. Some creators’ works are just… they align with your worldview. He mixes horror and thriller in such a raw and personal way, I consider many of his movies my favorite romances.
Yes. Romances. None of his works would survive in the category Romance genre, as in, the actual Romance category, where people expect romance to be the main plot. But, for a perv weirdo like me who likes stories that cannot be easily categorized, Mr. Park’s romances, disguised as horror and thriller, work their magic splendidly.
It is a matter of personal taste. There is always… tragedy and clarity and beauty in his movies. I think this is very difficult, to reach all three. Usually, tragedy is just ugly or murky; clarity is too blatant to be tragic or beautiful; and beauty is too pure to be tragic or clear.
And yet. Somehow. This guy. He manages it every time. Tragedy, clarity, and beauty, together.
And I needed that, a lot, this month.
Stability without the charm of meaning
Again, today’s theme: when we’re presented with the option to find meaning through play, meaning that solely comes from stability swiftly loses ground.
This theme… it’s personal for me.
Since you’re listening to Sponge now, let’s talk about Sponge as an example. Sponge itself… just listen to me talking about all these fiction, nonfiction, films, books, all kinds of stories. I could be talking about them endlessly. Why? Because I am presented with the option to find meaning through play.
Ever since I realized that there was a way to find both meaning and play, my previous life—in which various people in various circumstances said that meaning could be found in that line of work as well, but unfortunately I wasn’t one of those who found meaning—that previous life was thrown out of the window. The stability of a paycheck was alluring, and the history of having spent 16 years of official education to land that job that would lead to that paycheck was difficult to abandon; however, to me, they were meaningless.
And I’m not saying that stability is something to sneeze at. Not at all. We spent “Episode 24: To live long and prosper.” on how critical stability is. “Episode 25: Every-other-Thursday’s child has far to go.” also focuses on long-term, steady, and healthy relationships. I know that stability has immense value. Staying power is real. Staying is incredibly difficult. Showing up again and again is incredibly difficult and valuable, and for that, stability is a must, and for stability, anything related to that, such as a paycheck, is extremely valuable.
However, stability can never be the only thing in a person’s life. When stability lacks the play element to such an extent that there is no risk and no losses, but also no wins and no gains, there is no sense of growth, that sense of achievement without competition. And then, what meaning could that stability possibly give a person?
See, I think when most people say that stability is valuable, they want play to be there too. For example, many folks want stable jobs. However, I haven’t seen that many who like the idea of a dead-end job. They want that sense of growth, that sense of play, within stability.
And when there is no play element in stability at all, then… they become particularly vulnerable to meaning through play, when it presents itself.
And that is what happens in this movie.
A man exists, leading a more-or-less predictable life, despite being a police detective who deals with homicide cases. In fact, his life outside of the police work is so predictable, like clockwork, that he gets super excited about the homicide cases.
He is a great detective, for this reason. He embraces this one element of play in his life—the murders—wholeheartedly, knowing full well that the rest of his life consists entirely of stability.
Is there meaning in that stability? It is unclear, at the beginning of the movie. But toward the end, more and more, it is revealed that he probably never felt any meaning from the stable side of his life—his home life, with his wife.
Her name is quite interesting. Her name, in Korean, is 안정안An Jung-An. This is noteworthy. Mr. Park, in some other films of his, chooses his character names very carefully. For example, in “Thirst,” he named the female lead Tae-ju, which is supposed to sound similar to the name “Thérèse Raquin,” also the title of a novel by Émile Zola, which the movie “Thirst” is adapted from. Meaning, whatever the audience may already know about Thérèse from the novel, Mr. Park wanted to have associated with Tae-ju, in the movie. So, he doesn’t name his characters randomly; at least in some key cases, he names them with clear intention.
While An Jung-An, the wife of the male protagonist from the movie “Decision to Leave,” does not come with a whole book’s backstory, her name itself means something in Korean. And it is worth mentioning that meaning, because this phrase keeps coming up in the movie: 원전 완전 안전. You can hear the rhyme, right? I’ll say it again: 원전 완전 안전. It means “Nuclear power plant totally safe.” That’s the slogan of the nuclear power plant where this wife character works.
And her name contains the word 안정, which, literally, means stability. Not only that, her name sounds the same regardless of whether you read it forward or backward. 안정안. Do you hear the sameness? Backward, it still sounds the same. 안정안. You can look at the Korean letters on the transcript page, to see, that visually, her name looks stable. And meaning-wise, it means stability. And she works at a nuclear plant where total safety is emphasized.
It doesn’t end here, though. The male protagonist and this wife character only meet over the weekend, because he works at a particular police station and she works at a particular nuclear plant, and the two locations are too specific for either of them to easily move jobs.
And every weekend, like clockwork, they have sex. The rhythm is so predictable, it is humorous yet painful to watch this sex scene. Their sex is so predictable, he is thinking about other things as it happens.
And when he has little problems, she always has the answer—not just any answer, but a scientific answer. For example, he quit smoking. And when he says he feels like smoking again, she immediately calls someone for some herbal medicine or something like that, I’m not sure what exactly it is that she tries to obtain; but something that is supposed to make him quit smoking more fully and more easily.
The part that hurts is that she does none of this in an obnoxious way. Not at all. She loves her husband. Truly, she cares about him so much. Moreover, it’s not necessarily that he doesn’t love her back. In his own way, in a passive way, he has some kind of… loyalty for her. I don’t think you’d normally call this “love” in a romantic relationship, but it is some form of love.
But, see, he needs meaning. Not only that, he needs meaning from play, in the form of his police work, and everything associated with it. He already knows he can obtain meaning from play, so anything less than that won’t cut it.
She has all the answers, and that doesn’t work for him. She doesn’t actually listen to him. That’s the tragedy. Neither does he. It’s both ways. She’s so logical, so objective, even in her genuine love. Even if he told her what he wanted, she couldn’t give it to him. She doesn’t have the charm. She doesn’t know what it is.
And the wife knows this. At the beginning of the movie, she doesn’t think that he will have an affair. But she knows he needs play, and she also knows that something is wrong.
And. Yeah, that’s what happens. The male protagonist has an affair. An emotional affair.
To time-travel a bit, after the emotional affair begins and seems to have ended, and after the male protagonist moves to the city where his wife works, around the middle of the movie, the wife says, “당신 오고부터 난 맨날 집밥 먹고, 석류 먹고 건강해지는 느낌인데, 당신은 왜 그렇게 시들어 가지?” Which means, “Ever since you came here, I eat home-cooked meals every day, eat pomegranates and feel like I’m getting healthier, but why are you withering like that?”
That is literally how she puts it: he is withering like a dried flower, after the affair began and then seems to have ended. Only seems. Because, this wasn’t just an affair. It touched his reason for existence. Love like that doesn’t just end when the affair seems to end.
At this point, the wife doesn’t know there was an emotional affair. However, she knows he is withering. He knows he is withering.
At some point she says, “당신은 살인이랑 폭력도 같이 있어야 행복하잖아.” Meaning, “You’re only happy when there is murder and violence as well.” She’s talking about his need for homicide cases. His playtime. His mystery puzzles.
She is a woman of science. Oh, she works at the nuclear plant. Everything safe, stable, and predictable. She is fully aware of this pattern, his pattern.
But knowing the pattern doesn’t mean she can give him what he needs.
Marriage and affairs
Before we continue, to avoid all misunderstandings, let me clearly state: affairs suck. Emotional, physical, it doesn’t matter. Play, stability, meaning, it does not matter. Affairs just suck.
And this isn’t because marriage is sacred, not necessarily, although, if the marriage happened in such a way for either party to believe that it is sacred, then the shock from having that promise broken might be deeper than the shock from having a secular promise broken. But even if marriage weren’t sacred, it is a contract. Literally, it is a legal contract. And the law, whether we like it or not, plays a practical and immense role in our lives.
I consider marriage to be something that could be romantic but is definitely practical. That is the case, where I live, in the United States.
Say you get into an accident. Say you get your head crushed in a traffic accident. You’re in a coma. The hospital staff isn’t going to let just anybody in to see you. They’re going to ask, “Are you family?” And “No, but I am his lover, her lover, whatever”—that isn’t going to cut it. It just doesn’t cut it.
There’s a site called Unmarried Equality. It says, quote, “If an incapacitated patient has not completely documented his or her wishes, hospitals follow state laws about who can make health care decisions for the patient. Many states rank potential decision makers and mandate that hospitals follow this priority order. In most states, a domestic partner or close friend is last on the list of potential proxies. In some states, domestic partners and close friends are not on the list at all.” End quote.
Do you see? When you’re a friend, you are a stranger. You go to the hospital after someone dies. Someone close to you dies. Someone you think you’re closer to than their family dies. And you demand that you want to see the body—they’re not gonna show it to you.
So, I’ve always thought that there would be benefits to Getting married to a significant romantic partner, as soon as possible. Of course then there is the other side, where… the person you’re married to should not be there. As in, had you not been incapacitated, you’d tell them to go away, but hey, state law says that they get to make decisions for you.
But. Even considering marriages gone wrong, still, marriage is one of the few contracts that are recognized across hundreds of countries. No matter where you go, no matter what airport, what temple, what church, what beach, what school—if you say you are married, everyone understands more or less what that means. Even if you were married at a Christian church, if you go to a Buddhist temple and tell them you’re married, they will understand what that means.
It means that you are the one and only for each other. Ideally.
Even in this day and age when people get divorced half the time, I think marriage will continue to be valid. It will continue to have real meaning. Even with some countries having broader rights for unmarried couples, some other countries do not have such broader rights. So, marriage is incredibly practical and through that practicality, romantic.
Given all this, to have an affair, especially not only while being in a non-marital relationship but while married… it is bad.
A case where an affair might be justified, that I can think of, is if you were forced to get married. That could happen. And in that case, the promise that was made isn’t actually yours. So in my secular view, believing in a world of more-or-less free will, it doesn’t even count as a full marriage. It’s just a piece of paper that happens to have a lot of social meaning, a lot of practical meaning. That’s handy in its own way, but anytime a contract is forced on someone, I doubt its full validity, even if the law recognizes that contract as valid.
But I think a forced marriage is unlikely in most of the countries where a movie like “Decision to Leave” can be accessed. And a forced marriage is not what happens in the movie.
In this movie, there is the marriage of the male protagonist.
And also in this movie, there is the affair he has with another woman.
But the reason that I think this movie still counts as romance, and not an overt glorification of marital infidelity, is that… okay, this might be picking details, but, at the most basic level, there is no sex in the affair. Not only no on-screen sex, but I am pretty sure that there was no off-screen sex.
Now, that said, emotional infidelity is very real. However, what I’m saying is, the situation in the story could have been really shitty. Very shitty. But it doesn’t get to that point. The purpose of existence of this movie isn’t to show the details of marital infidelity.
Also, the wife in this story is no fool. She notices her husband has another woman and leaves him. It probably only took her so long to leave him because she was actually still trying, in her predictable, stable way, to make him happy.
And I talk about all this, not because fictional stories need to be the pinnacle of moral standards, especially when moral standards are so different from culture to culture and person to person. But, in the sense that this male protagonist, within the culture he is in, made a promise, in the form of a marriage, which happens to be legally binding. And I would have been unsympathetic toward him, had he pushed his affair any further than what happened in the movie.
The genius of this movie, of Mr. Park the director, is that the theme isn’t anything related to purely romance. I think the theme is about life itself. And I think this theme, of the movie, is the theme for this episode. When we’re presented with the option to find meaning through play, meaning that solely comes from stability swiftly loses ground.
Now, there’s the question: can romance be separated from life? I think in some cases, yes. It’s just like what we talked about in the last episode. Work and life can be separated in some cases, and in the same way, romance and life can be separated. In some other cases, work/life cannot be separated. Similarly, in some other cases, romance/life cannot be separated either.
But, if, in some cases, two things can be separated, then a movie could be about either one. Right? And in this movie, Decision to Leave, there happens to be a marriage where romance is separated from work, which is, interestingly, closer to life for the male protagonist. His police work with its mystery puzzles is what he considers closer to life than his romance, pretty much nonexistent, with his wife.
And because, from the beginning, it is abundantly clear where this man gets his play—namely, from work—the movie makes it clear that this infidelity isn’t necessarily, fully, about romance. This is about his life. The core of his lack isn’t that he can’t have sex with some woman he thinks is hot. The core of his lack is that he couldn’t, so far, unite romance, play, and work.
But suddenly, in the form of a strange woman, appears the possibility of the trinity. Romance, play, work. Beauty, tragedy, and clarity.
The totality of meaning.
Humans, suckers for meaning
You only live once.
Yes, YOLO. Urgh. I don’t like what YOLO has become, but carpe diem used to be something cool.
You only live once. More importantly, we all die.
Folks, we all die. We all die in all kinds of ways.
So, stability is nice and promises are valid, especially if you chose to make promises, but… but… you gotta live while you can. We make mistakes, we break hearts and get our hearts broken, but damn it. We gotta at least try to live.
Even when we crash and burn a thousand times, if we’re not going to try to crash and burn once more, then… why live?
At least that is what I tell myself these days—that I need to stop making excuses and intend to crash and burn. Funny thing is that if I had intended to crash and burn, then I might never have crashed and burned. That’s the irony of life.
Unfortunately, all these words of wisdom are easier said than done.
But, even so.
Even if we don’t take active risks, more sluggish risks await us anyway. We would live with the fear that we haven’t found meaning in life.
We live in an era in which religion, in many cases, doesn’t provide answers for people anymore. There are arguments that some problems in the modern world occur due to the lack of religion, and that religion is healthy for you. I agree. Totally. Having faith in something is absolutely healthy. It almost doesn’t matter what that particular faith is, so long as it isn’t actively harmful to others.
If you have faith that you’ll have a good day if you wear your left sock before your right sock, then darn, have that faith. Always wear your left sock before the right one. Why not? Suddenly, you attached meaning to socks, and your life feels not only more stable, but also more meaningful.
Faith is a stable form of meaning, I would say.
But there is also meaning through play. And as humans, I believe it is difficult to choose meaning that only comes from stability over meaning through play.
Play… play is what you do without having to feel the need to. I guess faith could be like play, too, but in that case, it’s more like the case where romance is life and work is life. You know? It’s when faith cannot be separated from play that meaning through something as stable as faith can triumph over meaning from play.
If there is only stability and no play element whatsoever, no amount of meaning it provides stands a chance against meaning through play, in the long run. That is what I think, in the real world, and that is what happens in the movie.
But more often, we don’t even need to think about a case where meaning from stability must compete against meaning from play. Most of the time that I’ve seen, people don’t find meaning from stability, at all; they find boredom.
There are many books and movies that deal with this topic. You know, workers in the healthcare industry, especially those who work in hospice, put stories of their patients together, about “21 things that you regret most when you’re about to die” or “11 things you’ll wish you had done before you turn 80.”
These patients tend to be people who have lived a stable enough life, with a long enough history, to be in their 70s, 80s, 90s, whatever, and to be about to die, and have things to regret. There was no shortage of stability for them. While they were living through various challenges, it may have seemed as if there was a shortage, but near the end of their lives, the whole point of them regretting this is that they came to see that pretty much, they had a surplus of stability, and that some of that, or maybe even all of that, was meaningless. They were hanging on to stability due to fear.
And thus, what they end up regretting is not having gone after more meaning through play, passion, dreams.
People don’t regret not having shown up to work on time on a Monday morning, for their stable job. They don’t regret not having followed tradition or convention.
They regret not having sent that letter to the person they love, for fear that another painful cycle would repeat itself.
They regret not having taken the risk of getting hurt more, for fear that the same exact painful things that seem to happen to others might happen to them.
And they regret not having taken that airplane to move continents.
Sometimes I feel like… the educational system that is prevalent in many parts of this world at this time, by which I mean, the early 21st century, brainwashes us into avoiding play to find meaning. As in, instead of observing and really thinking and feeling where we can find meaning, the educational system brainwashes us into assuming that play cannot have meaning that lasts with stability. Yes, stability in play. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
Because many people don’t even consider play as an option for meaning, they default to stability, until, boom, on their deathbed, they finally realize that they’ve believed in a whole load of crap. And it’s too late.
Now, of course, play could also be as meaningless as some forms of stability. But, because of this brainwashing where play is neglected as a source of meaning, I think it is worthwhile to focus on cases when play provides more meaning, way more meaning, than stability.
Before we continue, a reminder. If you haven’t done so already, please leave a review and/or rating wherever you listen to this podcast.
While you do that, I’ll talk about the editing in this movie. Like with the character names and the jobs of the male protagonist and his wife, the editing of “Decision to Leave” fits the theme perfectly. Namely, that, when we’re presented with the option to find meaning through play, meaning that solely comes from stability swiftly loses ground.
As soon as this protagonist goes to the crime scene, it’s as if he forgets that he ever had a life outside of his work. And it’s not just the usual, expected concentration on work, that would not only be good for him and his family. It’s not just the usual, expected concentration that is required from the folks who pay him. The way he concentrates clearly shows that this is his way of life. He can barely suppress his grin, and it might even be that he only manages to suppress it because if he were to start laughing at a crime scene, the police might fire him.
At the beginning of the movie, he is a detective. And later on, when he moves to the city where his wife lives, he is promoted to inspector.
The whole world is, for him, a puzzle. Or rather, he wants it to be so. What he loves is finding patterns. So beautifully, the editing reflects that desire of his. We, as the viewers, get to see the world from this protagonist’s view. In other words, Director Park invites us to play along, literally. He wants us to play together on a puzzle. Or work together on a puzzle. In this case, there is no difference between play and work.
There are unconventional, jarring cuts that nevertheless connect the scenes together, according to shape. It’s like puzzle pieces fitting together, even though, at first sight, you might not consider these pieces to belong to the same puzzle.
Here are some examples. An X-ray scan, showing the bones of a hand and arm, is overlapped with footage of our protagonist’s real arm in the next scene. Similarly, blinking lights overlap with the wait signal of a messaging app. You know, those dots that blink.
There is no barrier between night and day, fire and electric light. No barrier between sleepless reality and dreamy hallucination either. Private homes don’t stay private homes; someone always keeps intruding, either literally, or in their minds.
The effects of this kind of editing are manifold.
First of all, because they’re relatively unconventional and unexpected by an audience—by whom I mean, an audience like me—that is used to smooth, sleek mainstream Hollywood editing, the puzzle pieces immediately draw attention.
Second, the audience learns that within this movie, the rules of this movie prevail. As in, while there is an external reality that the movie does reflect, even so, primarily, the rules of the internal world prevail. And if the audience wants to understand what’s going on, it must actively participate. Just noticing that the editing is unusual won’t cut it. How is it unusual? How does it nevertheless make sense? Or does it not make sense? If it doesn’t make sense, is the sense of this movie that it doesn’t make sense?
Third, ironically, after having asked all these questions, the audience cannot help but notice a pattern, which is that seemingly any incongruent, unrelated elements can be connected. And so, even when the odd editing wasn’t actively happening, I, as an audience member, started connecting all kinds of things.
And this is exactly the mind state in which the protagonist lives. He revels in connecting the dots. And I… I couldn’t hate him. I couldn’t even dislike him. The guy goes around wanting more playtime like some little kid and one of the ways in which that becomes evident is that he falls in love with another woman who isn’t his wife; but because other parts of him are so pure, in that he loves to connect the dots and made that his job… So I could not help but be partial to this movie and him.
He may have married the wrong woman—wrong for both him and the woman, his wife—but, it isn’t that he is entirely clueless about himself. He knows he is effective as a police detective/inspector.
In fact, the way he connects the dots is also unconventional and yet so efficient, the movie does not clearly distinguish between reality and his hypotheses about how a crime might have happened. His phone conversations with a suspect are cut in such a way that it is at once a phone call and his imagination. For example, in the internal reality of this movie, he is in his car and the suspect is inside a building. But the movie is cut in such a way that sometimes, he stands right next to that suspect, imagining her reactions… and that suspect happens to be Seo-rae, the woman he falls in love with, the woman he loved from the beginning.
He is so passionate about his work. He knows what drives him. I guess he just didn’t think that he could find the same drive and commitment in his marriage, which is unfortunate, but at work, oh, he is excellent.
He is the type of police to climb up a cliff from which a potential murder victim fell, instead of taking a helicopter, the way everyone expects him to. He wants to directly experience the path along which the victim fell, he says.
His need to connect the dots, the thrill he gets out of that act, is shown over and over again. There is even a shot where the POV, point of view, is the dead person. Ants crawl over the dead person’s eyes, and the shot is framed from inside that person’s eyes. And there is also a shot where the POV is a computer. So, the camera is inside a computer as the protagonist looks at the monitor.
Meaning, this guy, he looks at the world, and also, he imagines how it looks at him. How he is seen by the world.
Perhaps this is one of the implied reasons why he married the woman he married. Maybe, either consciously or subconsciously, he thought that she could give him the stability that might balance his line of work. Maybe he thought it was necessary. Maybe he even actually believed it.
The Other Woman
Now. When he meets the other woman. Seo-rae. That is her name. The woman to whom he is not married.
In the very first scene they meet, the “play” element is evident. The camera movement is… hilarious. It is such an exaggerated move, like doinggg…! You don’t hear the sound effect, but the visual effect might as well be the sound. You can almost hear a bell ringing in his head. There is a lot of awkward humor in this movie. There is murder in this movie, there is violence, there is emotional trauma, and still, there is humor. This protagonist, and as a consequence, this movie, revolves around play, despite all the dark elements. I believe that is why it can contain one of the most beautiful romances I have ever seen on the screen.
The circumstances under which they meet is that, as mentioned in the blurb that I read earlier, someone fell from a mountain peak and died. So, who is brought in for questioning? The spouse. The wife. Of course. In a murder, always, the spouse is the prime suspect.
That wife of the dead mountain climber is Seo-rae, who is the woman that the male protagonist falls in love with.
And as soon as they meet, the play begins. One of the first things the protagonist says to Seo-rae, ever, is this. “패턴을 좀 알고 싶은데요.” He means, “I would like to know your pattern.” Because, he wants to know how to unlock the smartphone evidence, and needs the unlock pattern.
Talk about being obvious with the theme. Also, to the audience, it is abundantly obvious that this man is in love from the start, he just doesn’t know it yet. And Seo-rae didn’t really… do anything, even though she has that aura.
Later on, these two characters mention what they like about each other. And he says that he likes how she stands so tall. That makes or breaks a person’s aura: posture. So, I guess she did do something, but it was her very being that he was attracted to, not particularly her actions. It is difficult to fix your posture, you know? More than hairstyle or clothes or even the smoothness of your skin, posture is difficult to fix.
Anyway, he asks her what her pattern is, when they first meet.
Isn’t it fascinating? So, we have this police guy who is addicted to solving puzzles, connecting the dots, and imagining things from various perspectives. The first thing he ever says to this woman is an admission of his impending obsession with her. It’s not the crime he wants to solve. She is the puzzle. He wants to solve her.
One of the amusing elements in the movie is that Seo-rae is fully aware that she is a puzzle he is obsessed with. She knows that she is the puzzle that is being solved internally. But externally, there is still the crime, the case of her husband’s death, as well as a bunch of other cases that haven’t been solved yet.
So what she does, quite shrewdly, is to help him solve one of those cases.
And… I say shrewd, but the actor, Tang Wei, I mean. Look at her. She’s gorgeous and, indeed, there is just something about her posture. Indeed, she stands so tall. She is tall, but people way taller than her sometimes cannot use their full height. But she does. I have seen maybe half a dozen movies with Tang Wei in them, and I have never found one where, even as some gangster’s abused girlfriend, she looked cheap. I think it would be impossible for her to look cheap. Her very being is luxury. You know?
And she acts all the nuances. So, this shrewdness appears in a way that lets the audience know that she knows what’s going on, but, she isn’t really manipulating him. She, too, means it. She is in it for the play too. It’s not like she’s making up her feelings. She’s just really aware of what he does and why.
And so, she helps him solve a case. And she finds a pattern in the case very quickly. She literally gives him a fresh perspective by pointing out a pattern and is actually instrumental in solving the case.
In that case, the male protagonist needs to track down a suspect. He seems to have thought that the suspect would be close to the city where he lives, but Seo-rae points out that the suspect did something once for a woman. The suspect made a big sacrifice. He did something, risking that he would have to do something that he really hates, for this woman.
But this woman doesn’t live in the same city where the male protagonist lives, right now. Besides, that woman is married.
When our police detective points this out, Seo-rae says, “한국에서는 좋아하는 사람이 결혼했다고 좋아하기를 중단합니까?” Meaning, “In Korea, do people stop liking someone because the person they like is married?” This is such a… sexy line. I mean. The way she delivers it. Wow. It is playful, it isn’t cheap, it solves the puzzle. The puzzle of the crime.
Oh my gods, this is everything the male protagonist wants. Or, he probably didn’t even know he wanted those things until he got them. He needed them and he probably didn’t even know. That is why he is married to his current wife. I mean, who the hell could predict that someone like Seo-rae would come along? Nobody predicts that. Nobody expects that. Especially someone who likes to solve puzzles, the way this male protagonist does. Just look at the clues lying around in the world, the clues of other people’s marriages, relationships; the clues of averages and norms. Love like his and Seo-rae’s is simply very unlikely to occur. It’s quite logical that he married the woman he married.
Anyway, so this police detective goes to where the woman lives—the woman for whom the suspect sacrificed something. And there the suspect is! Just like Seo-rae said he would be!
And now, officially, this police detective has a partner in play, instead of a partner in crime. Actually, in a different scene with a different suspect, she follows the detective by car and sees him punching the suspect in an attempt to arrest him. These two, this male protagonist and Seo-rae—they are both so perv in such a fascinating way. I mean, look at this lady. Her husband just died and she is being investigated by a police detective. And she follows him around in her car, watching how he catches a criminal, how he punches the criminal.
And the protagonist seems docile most of the time, but oh, he can be wild when he wants to be. He can fight so well that he can tell if someone is murderer material or not.
And this co-puzzling—piecing a puzzle together—continues even within the investigation in which she is the suspect for the death of her husband.
Foreign language pattern matching and being in sync
There is one key piece of information that I haven’t emphasized so far. It is critical, hyper-critical. It is that Seo-rae doesn’t speak Korean fluently, in a society in which Korean is the one and only language that is used on a day-to-day basis. The movie is mostly Korean, but also has a lot of Chinese, which is Seo-rae’s mother tongue.
So, even for most audiences, who are Korean, this movie has puzzle pieces that cannot be fully understood. No translator in this world can ever translate all the nuances of a language. Even a single word may not mean the same thing, even with direct dictionary translations.
Anyway, for most Chinese speakers, parts of the movie cannot be completely understood either, because of the Korean lines. I… wonder if Mr. Park fully understands the Chinese here. He has a few movies in which foreign language is spoken, such as “The Handmaiden,” in which Japanese is spoken a lot. Makes me wonder how he decides to shoot and cut, with the dialogue in mind.
At any rate, given that “Decision to Leave” has both Korean and Chinese, only a small segment of the whole entire world population would be able to understand this movie’s language puzzle pieces fully. Only people who are fluent in both Korean and Chinese could do that. But, I don’t know if that is good, bad, or neutral. Maybe part of the point of this design in the movie is that not all puzzle pieces need to be understood, or should be understood. Sometimes, you bury some things, accept them as puzzles that can never be understood, and still decide to play the puzzle.
For people who speak neither Chinese nor Korean, it won’t even be possible to distinguish between Chinese and Korean dialogues, unless there are color-coded subtitles. That is another interesting layer to this movie’s language puzzle. What is it like to not know which foreign language is being spoken? Hmm.
Anyway, bearing all this in mind, it’s funny that there is a scene in which the Chinese speaker (Seo-rae) and the Korean speaker (the male protagonist) eat Japanese sushi together, for lunch, at the police station. Japanese is neither her nor him. They found neutral territory. Also, it’s pricy. That is made clear in the movie. The detective ordered something pricy for his new puzzle mate.
And after they finish eating, they clean up the table. And their movements are surprisingly, naturally, in sync. These two… they are beautiful together.
Of course, this being an affair, and with her husband dead, and later on, with her second husband dead, and her being a suspect again, and our male protagonist being a police inspector, and on and on and on, oh, so many problems. Oh, there are so many obstacles.
But at the beginning, before things get more complicated, these two, on their own… they are beautiful. They naturally play well together. Even with something as physical and on the surface as smoking. Our male protagonist used to smoke and quit, and Seo-rae still smokes. His wife doesn’t like it, and her second husband also doesn’t like it. But our male protagonist and Seo-rae? The two together, on their own? They’re perfect for each other.
But what a mismatch in their official relationships. The official ones, the marriage ones. I mean. How much would it suck if you’re a non-smoker to live with a smoker, and vice versa?
In contrast, Seo-rae and this male protagonist—they just fit. Because of other reasons—notably, a friggin murder case, among other things—the ending becomes a tragedy. But… I think their fit goes beyond the excitement of having an affair or being part of a murder investigation. They… I think even if they had met under less exciting circumstances, somehow they would have found each other to be the one. They’re meant to be together. It is tragic. It sucks for the spouses, and it also sucks for these two, that they didn’t find each other sooner and/or in different circumstances.
But belatedly as they have found each other, they keep pattern matching. Whenever there is something that would be nice to fit snugly like puzzle pieces, they make it fit together. And these aren’t necessarily physically visible puzzle pieces; sometimes the absence is what makes the puzzle fit together. Not only that, the mismatch of the puzzle pieces is the match.
And here is a straightforward example of pattern matching: voice translation. She records her message in Chinese, and the phone translates and speaks in Korean, so he can understand. And sometimes the phone voice is male, which has a really jarring effect—and at other times, it is female, which then makes the phone voice less conspicuous.
Another pattern matching element: she speaks in semi-riddles. Oh, this guy must just love how she talks. She tells him a proverb by Confucius, in the context of the investigation. “지혜로운 자는 물을 좋아하고 인자한 자는 산을 좋아한다.” It means, “A wise person likes the ocean and a benevolent person likes the mountains.”
Then Seo-rae says, “난 인자한 사람이 아닙니다. 난 바다가 좋아요.” Which means, “I am not a benevolent person. I like the ocean.”
Oh. Darn. What a beautiful line. The ocean, and water in general, is an element that keeps playing key roles in Mr. Park’s movies, over and over again. Water is portrayed as both terrifying and merciful. Even though in this proverb, it’s said that a benevolent person likes the mountains, and Seo-rae says that she isn’t a benevolent person—maybe benevolence for the sake of benevolence cannot be benevolent anyway. But water, with its wisdom to swallow everything—it is benevolent in its own way.
The final scene in the movie “Thirst,” if I remember correctly, happens at a beach. That movie ends—spoiler alert, quickly, press the skip button a few times, if you don’t want to hear this—that movie ends with two vampires burning together at the beach, as the sun rises. What the hell. Mr. Park. Such a romantic perv.
I guess he loves the ocean. He is wise. But perhaps he isn’t benevolent. Or maybe the ultimate benevolence is for two vampires to burn together.
But, like Seo-rae says, maybe she is more wise than benevolent, in her psycho murderer way. Yes, she is a murderer. Big spoiler. She did kill her husband. At least toward that dead husband, she definitely isn’t benevolent. And toward our male protagonist? It’s tricky. We’ll talk about the ending more, later on.
Ah. Anyway, Seo-rae mentions that proverb and tells the male protagonist: I am not a benevolent person, I like the ocean.
To this, the guy says, very quietly, “Me too.”
This guy. This guy. He is asking for it. He doesn’t want benevolence. He wants wisdom. And the irony is that wisdom, in this case, is somewhat like anti-benevolence. What is benevolence, what meaning does that stability have, when you’re dead inside with your wife with whom you cannot play? This guy doesn’t want benevolence anymore.
So when he finds out that they both like the ocean, it’s like he’s going “Pattern matched!” “Match success!” He’s like a child. A boy. He gets to play again.
And at some point, she laughs unexpectedly. And he joins in the laughter. But she stops laughing. And he stops. That’s unexpected and it’s so awkward but funny.
This is masterful meeting and dis-meeting of expectations. They dance really well together.
So, in every way, in humor code, in language, they are pattern matching. Even as they’re dis-matching, they’re matching.
Later on, we find out that he is even learning Chinese. Why might that be? For her, of course. And Seo-rae, she already speaks some Korean, because she lives and works in Korea. She watches K-dramas with intense love scenes and repeats after the dialogue. And he, he bought a Chinese 101 book and dutifully filled in the squares where he’s supposed to practice writing the characters.
It’s just… I mean, this guy. And when Seo-rae finds that Chinese 101 book at his place, later on, the face she makes. Wow. Tang Wei is so beautiful. In that split second, you can see her expression, and it’s… beautiful.
Yeah, there is an unbearable cuteness in someone trying to learn a language for you. The point isn’t that they’ll ever become fluent. It’s that they are embarking on the insane journey of learning a culture, which inevitably happens when learning a language. A person who embarks on the language/culture journey is very unlikely to ever “get there,” in terms of fluency. When you think about it, even among native speakers, some folks… they aren’t that fluent. And even if they sound fluent in spoken conversation, the grammar? Oh, nonexistent, sometimes.
So, for someone to learn an entirely new language that has nothing to do with their mother tongue? For someone else? It is… incredibly adorable.
Anyway, because of this language difference, some amusing and scary misinterpretations happen too. For example, one night, as she feeds a stray cat, she whispers to it that she wants the male protagonist’s heart—not the physical heart, but his mind heart. She says that in Chinese, and he records it, which he later translates into Korean.
So, for the Korean-speaking audience, which is probably the main audience of this movie, an interesting double meaning happens. I don’t know what she said in Chinese, because I don’t speak Chinese, but apparently it can be misunderstood, because, at first, in the Korean translation, he thinks she is saying that she wants his physical heart. Like, as if she wanted to kill him and eat his heart or something. Later, she corrects him—what she meant was that she wanted his mind heart. Not necessarily romantic mind heart, but definitely leaning toward that more, compared to taking someone’s physical heart out of their ribcage.
And if the Korean-speaking audience is watching with the English subtitles on, which I was doing, then a third meaning is added. In English, in the subtitles, interestingly, the physical heart is translated as “head” and the mind heart is translated as “heart.” This might be because head and heart have the same first letter, and also because in English, that one word, heart, means both the physical and the mind hearts.
But. But. Yeah. It’s a shame that there was no other way to translate this, other than “head” and “heart.” I mean, it just sounds way scarier when you think someone wants your physical heart, and a lot more touching when you later find out that that same someone wanted your mind heart.
How do I explain this… Yeah, you can think of the Korean different words for physical heart and mind heart as the difference between the word house and the word home, in English.
Ah. Home. “Home.” What does “home” mean? I do not know.
Anyway. It’s like that, house versus home, for physical heart and mind heart, in Korean.
And sometimes, the structure of Korean is such that no matter the meaning of the translated English, the sentence order cannot be kept intact.
For example, at one point, she says “당신이 밤에 누구의 집을 들여다 보는지, 당신의 아내는 아나요?” Which means, “Does your wife know whose home you stare into late at night?” She says this because she knows that he stakes out across from her apartment.
In the English sentence, the order goes “Does your wife know whose home you stare into late at night?”
But in Korean, it’s the other way around. It’s like “You at night whose home stare into, your wife knows?”
So, the “your wife knows?” goes to the end. Often, I feel that the order matters the most, more than what’s said. The first thing you tell someone can make or break the rest of the relationship. First impressions are very real. It almost doesn’t matter how much humans pretend to be more “civilized,” in air quotes, because they don’t follow their gut instinct. Gut instinct is real. Maybe we’ll do a book on this topic, at some point—basically, latest research is now finding that the gut, the literal physical gut of the human, functions like the second brain. It’s fascinating stuff. When your gut tells you something, at that first moment of encounter, it’s almost always best to listen to it. That’s what I have found. No amount of thinking can replace the gut instinct. And thus, one can only hope that enough good things come before the bad things, so that the territory could maybe neutralized, and fresh things can be planted, should bad things happen. But if bad things happen first, then most likely, the good things will never happen, because the people involved in that relationship will not be around to experience those good things.
And something similar happens with sentence structures. It’s not necessarily in that some languages put the good sentence fragments before the bad sentence fragments; it’s not necessarily about good and bad, in the case of sentences. But I’m saying, the first impression aspect still remains valid. The first thing that the sentence throws at you, and then the last thing—that order creates an entirely different nuance.
I’ll talk about one more interesting word choice in this segment of this episode. This choice actually happened first thing, in the first meeting of the male protagonist and Seo-rae. That word was like his first impression of Seo-rae. It’s this:
The way Seo-rae describes her husband’s death is so… off. And the police cannot tell if it’s because she is a foreigner, or if she means it.
Specifically, she says that her husband died “at last.” At last. There is a sense of expectation. It implies that she was looking forward to his death, even.
Again, a puzzle, she is, for him to solve. That was clear, from the beginning.
And there is one last language element that I want to point out. That one is so critical, and it has to do with the ending, so I will talk about that at the very end.
Insomnia and the meaning of life
Now, do you see why this episode had to be three hours long? There is just so much to talk about. I think with every single Park Chan-wook movie, I could talk for at least three hours. Three hours is the minimum. This guy. There is a reason he is both critically and commercially successful. The way he does it.
The clues are clear. There are so many of them. And yet, also, they are poetic. The tempo, the order, the nuance, oh, gods. Ah. The tragedy, the clarity, the beauty. I wonder what it’s like to be him. When you make a movie like this. When you make multiple movies like this. When you actually have a career, like, this is a guy who regularly keeps on making movies. He isn’t someone who once upon a time made a great movie. He is a working director. He is in the field, now.
What does it feel like?
There are many different kinds of insomnia, at the emotional level. And there are many different ways to categorize them, within the emotional level. One of the ways is to see under what circumstances insomnia occurs.
Does it occur when the situation is stable?
Or does it happen when the situation is unstable?
One would think that insomnia usually happens when things are unstable. When you fight with your loved one, when you might get fired from your job, things like that. The weird thing about this male protagonist is that, it’s the opposite for him. He has had insomnia for the longest time. His police partner knows this, and he is so sleep-deprived that he nearly dozes off at the wheel—not when things are unstable for him, but when everything is perfectly stable, with his “nuclear plant totally safe” wife. In other words, he is bored to insomnia by the predictability of his life.
And it is not surprising that he cannot cure his insomnia. I have insomnia, on and off, and most literature on insomnia talks about relaxing your mind, trying to forget worries, things like that. None, absolutely none that I have read or listened to, in the form of books or podcasts or Youtube videos, mentions different personalities and how that might be the partial cause of sleeplessness. As in, such literature does not address that someone like this male protagonist needs puzzles so he isn’t so bored to tears that he cannot sleep. It’s as if his mind/body triggered insomnia so that it adds some “fun” unpredictability to his life, “fun” in air quotes. Insomnia is the only way he can add a puzzle to his life outside of his police work.
And because he is who he is, his insomnia gradually vanishes with the appearance of Seo-rae. She contributes indirectly, at first, and then directly.
The first hint of a cure appears during a stakeout. He watches her from his car. There’s a whole lot of voyeurism going on here, as well as exhibitionism. In the beginning she may not have known that he is watching her, but later, she knows. Now, let me emphasize, there is no skin here. It’s not like she undresses so he can watch her get naked or some such thing. No. They are playing like children, almost.
Anyway, during this stakeout, as he watches her… at some point, he falls asleep. And the next day she actually knocks on his car window to say “Good morning.” It’s little humorous moments like these that keep the play element clear, in this movie. There isn’t a lot of brooding sexy staring or something like that. Not at all. Although the movie is very clearly fictional in that it is carefully staged, I find the characters’ reactions quite natural.
Rapidly, Seo-rae and our male protagonist get closer. And I think this is where it becomes a bit more evident that the protagonist is our police detective/inspector, and not Seo-rae. You know, they are the male and female leads, but they don’t have equal weight. I would say that in most romantic comedies, for movies, the female lead is the main protagonist; in a romance story, for written fiction, it’s also usually the female lead who is the main protagonist.
In movie romances, however, there seem to be quite a lot of male main protagonists. Even as the couple, as a pair, is the core of the story, of the couple, if they’re a heterosexual pair, sometimes the male is the main protagonist.
Still, I wouldn’t say that Seo-rae is objectified; in none of Mr. Park’s movies do I feel that the main protagonist’s love interest or people around them are objectified. But, in terms of storytelling structure, the up-and-down arc occurs in the male protagonist, and Seo-rae is the catalyst. Oh, Seo-rae very much drives the story, but she… she remains a puzzle to the end. There are some answers, but not everything is solved.
And for that—for there to remain unsolved puzzles within the story, and not just for the audience—the character who dies at the end can’t be the main protagonist. There has to be a surviving character to feel all the unsolvedness. And because Seo-rae dies, in the case of “Decision to Leave,” it almost can’t be helped that our police detective/inspector is the main protagonist.
Yes. Big spoiler. Seo-rae dies at the end. We’ll get to that part later on.
One more thing on characters dying and not being able to be the main protagonist. The exception-ish story structure is when there is an observing narrator who is the POV character, but the focus is on someone else. I think the most famous example of this structure is “The Great Gatsby.” Gatsby is the main focus, but the POV character is Nick Carraway. Gatsby dies at the end. Nick survives to feel all the feelings. But that structure is only exception-ish, because I think it’s so clear from the beginning that Gatsby is an object to be studied. Gatsby seems like a main character, but he’s so… staged, that it’s almost like he’s not a character of his own; he is like a TV personality being observed.
Anyway. Back to “Decision to Leave.”
As our two leads get closer, what happens is that the male protagonist talks a lot. A lot. It is amazing how much he can talk. Before getting closer to Seo-rae, you’d think that he’s a guy who’s quite conventionally and boringly guy-like in that he doesn’t express everything. He isn’t unloving, he isn’t unemotional, it’s not that simple. It’s only that he doesn’t feel the need to talk about everything.
Whereas, with Seo-rae, he talks so much that she actually has to make him shut up, physically, by pressing his lips together with her fingers and putting lip balm on him. Everything he won’t tell his wife, he tells her. He probably didn’t even know that he wanted to tell anyone all of this. It’s not big things, it’s little things, you know? Silly things. Silly things that children might tell each other. He doesn’t even care if she is listening. She doesn’t speak his “language,” Korean, at the surface level. But later, he also says, he knew they were of the same kind. They do speak the same language—at a deeper level.
And at some point, she learns that he has insomnia. And her reaction is completely different from his wife’s. Seo-rae simply walks into his apartment. Whereas his wife…
Okay, so, our male protagonist sees a murder suspect—who, it turns out, wasn’t just a suspect but the actual murderer. Our protagonist sees this murderer kill himself in front of him. After that traumatizing event, his wife calls him. She asks, does he want her to go to where he lives? Because, at this point, they’re still living in different cities. And when he tells her not to come see him, she doesn’t.
And, you know, there is nothing wrong with that. She respects his decision. They are giving each other space.
But even before him seeing the suicide of the murderer, his wife’s reaction to his insomnia is to take him to a doctor. See, she is a woman of science, and she thinks the answers are there to be found. How do you solve insomnia? Go to a doctor. Even when the doctor is clearly incapable of solving it—there is a humorous scene with the doctor being entirely clueless about the characteristics of the city where he runs his doctor’s office—even so, the wife’s reaction isn’t to try to examine her husband’s situation herself; it isn’t even to ask him what he thinks is the matter.
She goes to the doctor. For answers. For objective answers. For explanations. For statistically proven methods. Even when she talks about sex—the reason she thinks they should have sex is for blood pressure and improved cognitive ability. It’s kind of sad. Unless she meets someone who wants to have sex for the same reasons, it’s kind of sad. Isn’t it better to just not have sex? At some point it is mentioned that this couple has been together for 16 years and 8 months. But… even so. I don’t know if I would want to have sex for blood pressure and improved cognitive ability because I’ve been with someone for two decades.
Anyway, back to insomnia. Unlike the wife, Seo-rae? What does she do to cure his insomnia? She barges into his apartment. Of course, that isn’t all good. In most cases, it wouldn’t be good. But she breaks the pattern that he had, for so long. She knows that when you’re solving a problem, a puzzle, when you’re really trying to solve it, what will help you isn’t in the books. It isn’t in friggin’ “thinking.” You act.
When he asks why she’s here, she says, “재워주러요.” Meaning, “To put you to sleep.”
And the way she does this isn’t with a pill. Or with a hot cup of tea. It is nothing like that.
She breathes with him.
She sits next to him and syncs her breathing with him. Talk about pattern-matching. Talk about co-solving a puzzle.
And this is a beautiful moment, but also tragic. His wife… I don’t know how she and the male protagonist met and got married, but wow, his wife stands no chance against Seo-rae, who is literally a murdering psycho. She had her reasons, and I would say they are… somewhat valid reasons, but even so, she is a murdering psycho.
And still. Even so. His wife stands no chance against Seo-rae. Not that there is any sort of competition here, because the wife promptly leaves him when she finds out he is having an affair, emotional or otherwise. Also, it’s not like Seo-rae is trying to remove the wife. Not at all. There is no competition.
There can’t be. How would a person compete against another, who breathes in sync with the person who is in between? How, when Seo-rae can bring sleep to this man, could another person possibly stand a chance?
Seo-rae and the male protagonist, as I said earlier, tell each other why they like each other. But what they share is such a tiny piece of the puzzle. If they could have explained everything, they wouldn’t have been in love. Anything that can be fully explained probably isn’t love, regardless of whether a person has a personality like this male protagonist, where they love puzzles.
The love of Seo-rae and the male protagonist makes perfect sense. It is logical. And yet, it is inexplicable. But the inexplicability isn’t murky. That’s the beauty. The inexplicability is crystal-clear. The clarity is almost blinding.
And our male protagonist listens to the music he listened to with Seo-rae, at home. His wife approaches him and takes out one side of the earphone from his ear, and sings along. She likes the song. But she doesn’t know what the song means.
And Seo-rae—a woman who carries around fentanyl capsules so she can kill herself with them, if need be—ah. So long as our male protagonist is he and no one else, he will breathe in sync with her because she makes it so.
He, despite the infidelity is… pure. That is what is annoying. What are you gonna do when you are this person who cannot sleep while things are stable? What if you like puzzles? What if you like beauty so much you would rather face tragedy with crystal-clear clarity, than be safe and sound at home next to a wife who thinks she can solve your insomnia with some doctor’s help?
What if you just want to sleep?
The murderer, who committed suicide as our male protagonist was watching, says something that expresses the theme that runs throughout the movie. The theme of meaning. The murderer says, “가인이한테 ‘나 너 땜에 고생 깨나 했지만, 사실 너 아니었으면 내 인생 공허했다.” 요렇게 좀 전해주세요.” Which means, “Tell Gain, ‘I went through hell because of you, but truly, if it hadn’t been for you, my life would’ve been empty.’ Tell her this, for me.”
And this is the murderer whom Seo-rae helped our police detective find. The one who sacrificed something for the married woman he loved. So, all throughout this movie, there are so many marital infidelities. It is unclear, whether in this case with the murderer, there was sex or if it was platonic or whatnot. But there is so much… inevitable love. I think at some point it is entirely pointless to discuss right and wrong. I mean, again, as I said before, it sucks when affairs happen, for everyone involved, including the people who’re having the affair. However, some elements of life do their existing so purely, in an ironic way. Ironic because you’d think an affair or, hey, a murder, might be impure. But in a weird way, because some elements exist despite all that, above all that… they are pure.
Our male protagonist and his wife. They haven’t been breathing together for a long time. Instead of his wife, this other woman breathes in rhythm with him, even though they barely know each other.
It is difficult to beat a relationship that is in sync. It doesn’t matter how weird such a relationship is. And for a time it may look like such a relationship has ended, which is what happens in this movie. The relationship between Seo-rae and the male protagonist ends, momentarily. But they are so in sync. When they are apart, that’s when they are out of sync, even though it seems that there is nothing to be in sync with, because they’re alone.
So it’s like… with some things… even with murder… even with all the inexplicable elements… they are too pure to end.
Now that Seo-rae breathes with him, he can sleep, because he knows when he sleeps he will dream of her. And when he wakes up she will be there. Except, at the end.
Old puzzle, new puzzle, and the final scene
At some point, our protagonist learns that Seo-rae is not only a murder suspect, but also an actual murderer. He now faces a choice. Does he protect his old puzzle—his police work—or does he protect his new puzzle—Seo-rae?
The short answer is that he chooses to protect both. He helps her hide the evidence, thereby leaving a scar on his old puzzle. At the same time, he tells her that he cannot see her anymore, thereby leaving a scar on the new puzzle. But, at least, both his police work and Seo-rae are left somewhat intact. They just won’t ever mean the same thing to him anymore.
And the way he tells her how he feels, now that he knows she is a murderer, is so crucial. He uses a very specific word. 붕괴. 붕괴 is the noun and 붕괴하다 is the verb. This word is so difficult to translate. On MUBI, the site where I watched “Decision to Leave,” this word is translated as “shattered.” However, the tricky thing is that this word, even in Korean, consists of two parts. It isn’t one action.
Seo-rae looks up this word in the Korean dictionary, within the movie. And as shown on the screen, it consists of two parts. “무너지고 깨어짐.” It means to collapse and to shatter, I would say, although, that, too, is translated differently, in the movie, as “ruined or broken.” That works too. But I like to “collapse and shatter” more.
Still, regardless of whether it’s “collapse and shatter” or “ruined or broken” in the dictionary, most of the time, the word is translated as “shattered” in the movie, for conciseness. Basically, half the meaning has been thrown out.
It makes sense that the translator for this movie chose to do that, because in audiovisual translations, succinctness is crucial, due to the limit of how long the subtitle can stay on the screen. You can’t make a subtitle as long as it needs to be to convey all the nuances of the dialogue.
But even that difficulty in conveying meaning might be part of the greater puzzle that is this movie. Seo-rae, who is the female lead, needs to look up the translation. It is unclear if she can fully understand the meaning of this word, although the audiovisuals at the end of the movie indicate that she does. Perhaps it is okay that most people in this world will not understand the context/nuance/feeling of this word fully, because in a movie, there are audiovisuals, and I think we, too, all of us, like Seo-rae and the male protagonist, can feel what this word, 붕괴 means, by the end.
The line I mentioned earlier, of the wife asking the male protagonist, “Why is it that you are withering?” happens after this 붕괴. He went back to his empty marriage after finding out that Seo-rae murdered her first husband.
Indeed, why does he wither? Because Seo-rae, the woman he thought was listening, perhaps wasn’t listening. That is why listening, even in its non-listening-ness, is so scary. This woman, Seo-rae, didn’t really tell him much about herself. That’s the thing. And it wasn’t just about her not telling him about her being a murderer. It was… about many things.
I think he didn’t realize that there was no room for her to tell him about herself. Even the murder investigation, which seems, on the surface, to be about her, was actually about him, to him. It was his puzzle.
And so, he actually doesn’t know anything about her, really, except that she is a murderer. That puzzle is solved. But the puzzle that is her? Not at all.
Be that as it may, he protected his police work and he moved to the city where his wife lives. Now he is an inspector, not a detective, and he is withering.
What is he gonna do now? She doesn’t listen to him anymore because he told her to go away. He cannot make voice recordings while observing her, anymore. He doesn’t even want to make recordings about other people anymore.
But then something happens. Seo-rae moves to the city where he now lives with his wife. And Seo-rae doesn’t move here alone. She moves with her second husband.
I know. If you just hear this statement, it’s like, “wow, crazy lady, so messed up.” But I tell you, in the movie, even this is beautiful.
Anyway, after Seo-rae moves, what happens? This second husband dies, too.
And because of what happened in the past, the male protagonist suspects Seo-rae with great intensity. He tries to make up for the police investigation that he ruined, because, as he told her, he was crazy for her.
During the investigation of this second case with Seo-rae, he asks, “아니, 왜 그런 남자랑 결혼했습니까?” Meaning, “Really, why did you marry a man like that?” To which she says, “다른 남자하고 헤어질 결심을 하려고 했습니다.” Which means, “So I could make the decision to leave another man.”
It’s tragic. They are somehow still in sync. It doesn’t matter how weird this relationship is. All you can hope for is that the person next to you is the person who’s supposed to be there, and… even after all this, I think Seo-rae is the person who is supposed to be next to our protagonist.
Why? Because, in the process of escorting her from one location to another, as the official police person who is in charge of her, the murder suspect, they put handcuffs on. One end of the handcuff is on his hand, and the other end is on her hand.
They sit in the back of the car.
And what does he do in the car? He dozes off. Literally, she is his sleeping pill or something. I think he knows on an instinctive level that… she completes him. Despite what she did. Despite what she didn’t tell him. He even knows, deep down, that she has her reasons, and that he should have asked, should have trusted that she would tell him if asked, even though she couldn’t tell him from the beginning, because, hey, remember he’s the police? She wasn’t gonna confess, was she?
And the movie progresses swiftly and intensely. Toward the end, he hears some answers about what happened, about Seo-rae’s life, the tragedy, the clarity, the beauty.
He stands at the brink of a cliff to scatter the ashes of Seo-rae’s grandpa and mother. The mother whom, by the way, Seo-rae killed. The mother was so sick, so much in pain, Seo-rae killed her for mercy.
See. This whole mountain versus ocean, benevolence versus wisdom thing. Seo-rae likes the ocean, so she isn’t benevolent, she said. But what is benevolence anyway? What is wisdom? Should the person who is in so much pain… be made to continue to live?
I don’t know. I really don’t know.
At any rate, he stands at the brink of a cliff, scattering the ashes of Seo-rae’s family members, in her stead, because she has a fear of heights. She watches from some distance away, from behind him. At this point, we know that Seo-rae killed her first husband by pushing him off the mountain peak. Yes, she climbed the mountain despite her fear of heights and killed him that way.
So, this situation, of our male protagonist standing at the brink of a cliff, literally, and Seo-rae standing behind him… This situation looks static, but it is filled with tragic tension. Seo-rae could push him off the cliff, the way she pushed her first husband. Is she going to do that? Is that why she asked him to scatter the ashes?
And indeed, at some point, she approaches him from behind. We see the momentary terror on his face. What should he do? Turn around? Run? Attack her?
But he doesn’t move away. Even after everything she put him through. What’s he gonna do, after having known of her existence? Just live without her? He shuts his eyes, makes himself freeze, rather than run from her. He would rather die than run from her.
And instead of pushing him, she hugs him.
They breathe the same air. They have been, even when they were apart, ever since she helped him fall asleep.
And she returns to him the phone, the evidence that he told her to destroy as they parted ways. She returns it, telling him to return to the state before he collapsed and shattered.
Then she says, maybe she came to this city to be his unresolved case.
And by this she means. Forever. Forever, an unresolved case.
And then she kisses him. And he kisses her back. So they kiss. This is the one and only explicit-ish scene in the entirety of this movie.
Then they each go home.
That is when his wife moves out.
After that night, some time passes. Our male protagonist and Seo-rae don’t see each other for a while. But our male protagonist finds new evidence, and finds out how Seo-rae’s second husband was killed—this time, too, after the end of the investigation. Seo-rae wasn’t the direct killer of the second husband, but she set it up so that someone killed him, because otherwise, this second husband was going to reveal Seo-rae and the male protagonist’s relationship. It would have meant ruin, quite literally, ruin, for both of them. The male protagonist would have been fired from his police job, and Seo-rae, prison, or maybe she would have been sent back to China, where she would have been executed for the murder of her mother.
And now, we drive to the final scene—the scene with the audiovisual of 붕괴. We are literally driving, because Seo-rae is driving toward the ocean in her car, and the male protagonist is doing the same in his own car.
He knows that something is going to happen. Something bad. He found out everything, and yet he wants more explanations from her. She knows that she can’t really give him any explanations, anymore.
After their last phone conversation, he arrives at the beach where her car is parked. But she is nowhere to be seen. Only the audience sees her, digging a hole in the beach. Yes, a hole. The water is coming in. The sun will set soon.
She is… going to kill herself.
More water comes in. It’s getting darker. Our male protagonist runs around the beach, calling her name. She is already in the hole.
Gradually, water flows into the hole. The mound of sand that stood next to the hole collapses and shatters. Water is a scary thing. Drops of water can bore holes into stones. Drops of water that fall on a prisoner’s forehead can torture them to the point of insanity.
If any member of the audience did not fully understand what 붕괴 means in the previous scenes, then now they know what it means. Now they can see it, now they can hear it. Seo-rae is in the hole, awaiting her death. And by the time our male protagonist runs her way, it’s not even clear if he did run her way. The hole vanished. The sand and water filled it.
If he thought he collapsed and shattered because of a police investigation, now he’s going to be collapsed and shattered for life, because she is gone.
And, then there is the mist. Even when water isn’t there in liquid form, forever it will blur his vision, shrouding him.
Some lines from a poem
“Decision to Leave” is Ithaka’s all-time favorite romance movie, as of March 2023. There is almost no skin in this movie, at all. And yet, it is so sensual. And what makes “Decision to Leave” so tragically sensual is that when there is desire, it comes from the reason of being. The reason for living. That might be why I feel so content after watching this movie, in a… down kind of way. You can feel it press on your chest, like water. Like a body of water.
I watched this movie three times, over the period of about 2 months. I watched it once in January 2023, once in February, and once in March.
I suggest you watch this at least twice. The second time, you will love it more, because this movie itself is a puzzle. It is like love. It cannot be solved, but solving it isn’t the point. The second time, the third time, the fourth time, you will feel more comfortable with your inability to solve the puzzle.
The whole movie feels like diving into the ocean, holding your breath for a long time, and re-emerging—at least, for the audience. We didn’t sink, not this time.
But him. In the movie. He is someone who thought he would never love like this, and then found love. For the first time, he had the possibility of finding meaning in play. And with it, he found beauty, clarity, and tragedy.
Now she is gone. Talk about playing together. This is the ultimate, final card. “Take that!” she said, and then died on him. She gave him the ultimate puzzle, to remain his unresolved case, forever.
Given that he would have rather died than fear her approach, back at the mountain cliff, I am certain that he will now wither, even more than his wife had noticed earlier in the movie. He will wither, fully 붕괴, and… slowly die. I don’t think he will kill himself, because then he won’t be able to think of her for as long as possible. Who knows what happens after death? Will he get to meet Seo-rae again, or is this the end? Just in case this is the end, shouldn’t he stay alive for as long as possible, to remember her?
I think he would, in a withered way. He is ruined for life, because she left in a way in which she can never return. He will never sleep again. He doesn’t have air to breathe, anymore. She is the one who died, swept by the wave, unable to breathe, but his case is worse. He is alive and should have been able to breathe, but can’t anymore.
And this last scene reminded me of a poem that I found around the same time I saw this movie for the first time. From the date I wrote about this movie on my blog, which was January 3, 2023, it seems that I found this poem some time in late December. This poem does not show up in the movie, but it describes the final scene so perfectly.
I will not read the entire poem, because one, poetry is so difficult to translate, and two, copyright for poetry is basically… you basically can’t read anything, if the poem is really short. Like, if it’s a ten-line poem, then reading one line is 10% of the entire poem.
But I will read one line and hope that nobody who owns the rights to it will get mad at me. The poem is by Lee Jung-ha이정하, and the line I want to read is:
잠겨 죽어도 좋으니 너는 물처럼 내게 밀려오라.
Meaning, “I will gladly sink and drown; so come, flood over me like water.”
And the reason this line is so relevant for this movie is that… the whole poem is about how the narrator wanted to be in a low place. Anywhere on earth, where it is low, that was where the narrator wanted to be, so that the narrator could catch the love of their love with the entire body. So that not a drop of love will spill away. The poem talks about emptying oneself to embrace the entirety that is one’s love.
But see, I can translate and explain this poem a thousand times, it still won’t be the same as the original poem. Korean is a language of sentence endings. And this line that I read, ‘잠겨 죽어도 좋으니 너는 물처럼 내게 밀려오라.’ That last word could have been 밀려와라, 밀려와줘, 밀려오게, 밀려오렴. It would all be translated exactly the same in English. But instead, it was 밀려오라. That one last syllable makes the difference. It is an invitation, a prayer, a demand, all at the same time.
And the reason I tell you this, even though, based on the stats I have, 99% of you do not live in Korea and do not speak Korean, is that, the entire movie, “Decision to Leave,” is like me trying to explain to you why that last syllable of that one line of that one poem matters. In fact, the title translation of “Decision to Leave” is where this impossibility of translation already starts. In the Korean title “헤어질 결심,” that word “decision” isn’t decision. Not exactly.
But the goal isn’t to understand this fully. I don’t think even if we were to speak the same language, “same” in air quotes, we would understand each other fully. It isn’t possible.
The purpose isn’t to fully understand. I think about the only thing we can do, at some point, is to go to the low place and wait for the water to flood over us; to accept that we would gladly sink and drown.
Of course, the tricky part is, when is that point? When is that “at some point”? With whom?
We can’t do that for anyone and everyone. We can’t gladly sink and drown for any rando; we would have been dead before any of us made or listened to this episode.
So, when is that “at some point”? For whom do we gladly sink and drown?
Those, my friends, are questions that I believe no one can answer.
But when we do decide. After that point.
All we can do is give up understanding, give up solving the puzzle fully, give up many things. All we can do is go to the low place, gladly sink and drown—invite, pray, and demand that the water flood over us.
And that is all for this episode. Thank you for listening to this monster of an episode. “Decision to Leave” is a monster of a movie. Everything beautiful is a monster. Not all monsters may be beautiful, but all beautiful things are monstrous. They like the ocean. They aren’t benevolent and in that acceptance, they are more benevolent than any entity that claims to be so.
If you liked this episode of Sponge, please share it with a human.
You can find a link to the full transcript in the show notes. Also, visit ithakaonmymind.com to find out more about everything else I do, besides Sponge.
Stay true, everybody.
- “Decision to Leave,” directed by Park Chan-wook
- “Oldboy,” directed by Park Chan-wook
- Episode 24: To live long and prosper.
- Episode 25: Every-other-Thursday’s child has far to go.
- “Thirst,” directed by Park Chan-wook
- “Thérèse Raquin” by Émile Zola
- From Unmarried Equality, about hospital rights
- “The Handmaiden,” directed by Park Chan-wook
- My blog post on “Decision to Leave,” from January 2023
- The Great Gatsby
- Veaceslav Draganov – Ocean Depth – Instrumental Version
- The Wildcardz – Blue Ocean
- Aleksey Chistilin – Ocean
- VESHZA – Great Blue
- Stanley Gurvich – Ocean
- Onyx Music – The Ocean
- When Mountains Move – Ocean
- Stanley Gurvich – Memories
- Stanley Gurvich – Just Before I Saw Her
- R.A.Y. Project – After You Cry an Ocean
- I As A Black Hole – BΔΔ RΔΔ
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