Whatever happened to Romanticism in art? It’s disappeared, but, strangely, its elements are everywhere in the art we enjoy. Love, I suppose, not so much these days—but beauty and miserable suffering are everywhere, especially in what the young enjoy, sentimentality and brutality. A terrible longing is the only thing available to the sentimental education of the young, except the most contemptible activism. Romantic love is the kind of love that gets people killed—until recently, everyone knew it from Romeo and Juliet. It’s mad, yet somehow more dignified than throwing tantrums in college or social media and becoming a celebrity.
All this came to mind recently when I saw Park Chan-wook’s beautiful movie, Decision to Leave (2022). It’s something of a noir movie, a detective story with a femme fatale, a conflict between duty and desire. It’s all about how love gets people killed and, therefore, about what we want out of beauty and, perhaps, what we want out of art. The movie is justly celebrated—it was nominated for BAFTAs, won Park the Best Director award in Cannes, along with his fourth nomination for the Palme d’Or, and was even shortlisted for the Oscars before the Academy screwed up once more.
Which in turn makes me think about the director’s career—now nearly 60, Park’s got remarkable award nominations for just about every movie he’s made since 2000’s Joint Security Area, a fine thriller about the DMZ separating the two Koreas. His most famous movie, Oldboy (2003), a work about politics and morality in South Korea and the centerpiece of his Vengeance Trilogy, won the Grand Prix in Cannes and was remade by Spike Lee in 2013. But the Oscars ignored it, as with the rest of his career.
This prestige and its limits seem to have led him to become the last Romantic artist. After his political movies, he turned to love—to unhappy love, which comes out of a political situation but turns to deeper questions about what we want out of life. Park’s movies suggest most political activism is just unhappiness taken out of its existential context, which is how we manage to live with it. Or we could be true to love, to the desire to be understood and somehow helped to overcome our limitations—and die.
Behold Decision to Leave: Detective Jang is a remarkably competent man working homicide in Korea’s second-largest city, Busan. He’s 40, handsome, and cares about skin moisturizing (Korean guys are different), but he above all wants to excel at his job, which is pretty much his entire life. He wants to be beautiful and noble, but he’s so incredibly unhappy that he’s an insomniac—he’s restless because it’s impossible to be a hero in Korea. Even the wish is a secret we have to untangle (like Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a man driven mad by Romanticism and political ambition).
Well, you might say, leave the job and enjoy your life. How about family? Unfortunately, detective Jang is married to a nuclear scientist who is raising his son to be a mathematician. She seems to want him to retire to the little town where her nuclear plant is and be more of a house-husband—they only see each other on weekends. Their marriage looks at first respectable and then so incredibly ridiculous I cannot spoil the jokes for you. What happens if a man’s love is reduced by respectability to a science?
This is the Korean context into which love erupts, in the shape of the beautiful Tang Wei (who won acclaim in Cannes for starring in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution in 2007). She’s a Chinese immigrant to Korea, as out of place in her way as he is in his. She comes to his attention as the widow of a man who died a strange, almost inexplicable death, a mountain climbing accident. Then in the second half of the movie, she’s married again, and comes to be widowed again. The femme is indeed fatale, almost like a goddess in a myth, involving love and death both. But for all his investigation, he finds it impossible to blame her, much less accuse her of murder. He falls in love with her instead.
Much of the mystery of Decision to Leave has to do with why he loves her—obviously, she’s a beautiful woman in need of help, a victim as many immigrants are, and he’s a man without any great adventure. Chivalry almost explains it. But Park has something different in mind. He suggests detective and suspect are disturbed by their similarity. For one, we learn gradually that the woman is the only character anywhere near as smart as detective Jang. She learns at least as much about him as he does about her.
Romeo, by the way, was also an insomniac because of love. This widow cures Jang’s insomnia just as surely as Juliet did Romeo’s, and with very similar consequences. Park perhaps is less successful than he might be because he has a taste for tragedy. The movie is beautiful and often funny—it speaks to our suspicion that much of life is chance or absurdity—but it builds to a tragic conclusion that raises the Romantic question: Is death the proof of love?
In a Hollywood movie, the immigrant and the cop would marry, bringing everyone together. But that seems to be more about political confidence than about personal love—what if love requires finding an identity outside of respectability or beyond one’s country? Park seems to be thinking about the audience of the movies, we who want beauty and also are afraid it leads to death, not to a happy life. He may want to know whether we’d go mad like his characters, whom he treats with as much tenderness as humor, only to let us see how it all ends.
The detective, with his shameless inquiry into people’s lives and deaths, and the woman, who is not innocent, but is really more caring and loving than he is, are two parts of the director. Park wants this kind of success—an audience that watches his movies because they’re beautiful, but loves them because they try to put together, and keep sane, our curiosity for injustice, the dark desire that makes us want to see crimes, and our belief in beauty, in some kind of perfect solution that gets us out of that darkness.
Decision to Leave is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a film critic for Law & Liberty, the Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty, and The Free Press.