Murder is lost in translation in 'Decision to Leave' : Pop Culture Happy Hour In Decision to Leave, a man is found dead and the prime suspect is his widow. Things become complicated when the detective assigned to the case becomes enamored with her. This is the latest movie from South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who made Oldboy and The Handmaiden.

Murder is lost in translation in 'Decision to Leave'

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In the moody mystery "Decision To Leave," a man is found dead, and the prime suspect is his enigmatic widow. Boundaries are blurred and morals are tested when the detective assigned to the case becomes romantically attached to the suspect.


This is the latest movie from renowned South Korean director Park Chan-wook, who took home the prize for best director at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It's twisty and provocative and features simmering performances and striking imagery. I'm Glen Weldon.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Decision To Leave" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HARRIS: It's just Glen and I today, so let's get into it. "Decision To Leave" stars Park Hae-il as Hae-jun, a meticulous detective investigating the case of a man who plunged to his death from a rocky cliff. Tang Wei plays the dead man's wife, Seo-rae, and she's this mysterious Chinese immigrant and caretaker who doesn't seem all to broken up about becoming a widow. Hae-jun suspect she may have murdered her husband and begins to observe her during regular stakeouts of her home and job.

Naturally, when it comes to these genre thrillers, he becomes enamored with her. This, of course, complicates things, especially when it comes to Hae-jun's relationship with his wife, who's played by Lee Jung-hyun. The movie also stars Go Kyung-Pyo as a young and comically brash deputy, Soo-wan. Now, "Decision To Leave" is directed by Park Chan-wook, who previously made "Oldboy." And here he reteams with screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyeong, his co-writer of the 2016 erotic thriller "The Handmaiden." It's playing in some theaters now and expanding to other cities in the next few weeks.

So, Glen, tell me. What did you think of "Decision To Leave"?

WELDON: Oh, I liked it a lot. I'm always going to be more drawn to certain aspects of it. This is a mystery-thriller romance, and mystery thriller lands on me harder, I just think. The mystery-thriller aspects of this film are just fun and actually funny. I think this is Park Chan-wook's funniest work to date. As to the romance aspects, as the film goes on, they become increasingly melodramatic, which, as you mentioned in the intro, that's exactly the point here, where we have this rigid, by-the-book cop who becomes enamored and kind of succumbs to his passion. I just felt in those instances that the film's tones were kind of fighting each other as opposed to working in sync to kind of drive us toward the end.

But that's obviously a your-mileage-may-vary thing because I felt much the same way about his previous film, "The Handmaiden." And that film had something this film doesn't, which is a very queer and sexy thread that I thought played more with the noir mystery cliches in a very knowing way. And here, I think they're a little bit more flatly asserted.


WELDON: I also think it's a more chaste film. Its sexual temperature is notably cooler, to me anyway. But though, what do I know? I mean, I just read a review that described it as sizzling - so, you know, different strokes.

HARRIS: (Laughter) Yeah. I haven't seen "The Handmaiden" since it first came out, so it's been several years. But I definitely remember certain scenes and certain moments, and I would describe that absolutely as sizzling, for sure. Here, I think that - yeah, you called it a romance, and I think that's more of the speed. I was kind of hoping it would be more of an erotic thriller because that's kind of what I wanted from that relationship between the detective and the murder suspect, which is...

WELDON: Right.

HARRIS: ...Like, there's all of this tension, but then we don't really see that much going on between them outside of knowing glances. And I will say one sort of device that I actually really enjoyed was that because the murder suspect is a Chinese immigrant, her Korean is not that great. And so there are certain moments, certain scenes that I think are used to really great dramatic effect, where she has to interpret what he said and also then translate it back to him. She'll pause for a moment and then look at her phone, and then it'll take a moment to translate for her.

And I really liked those moments because it felt like, you know, this could be a cliche device, but I thought that it was used at just the right moments. It wasn't overdone. She can understand a lot of the language, but then, obviously, when it comes to dialects and regions, everything is going to be a little bit different. I kind of liked those moments, but I did want more sort of like oomph in their interactions together.

WELDON: Yeah. I think what he was going for was longing. There's a longing between them, which is informed by the language gap between them. I mean, this film uses technology in a really smart way. He dictates into his watch.


WELDON: I like how, when he is observing her from a distance, he also appears in the room with her to kind of show how close he feels to her, even though he's very far away. And that Google Translate stuff - I mean, we are - as English speakers, we're very reliant on the film's translators to kind of clue us in on exactly what that language gap is, the chasm between them. So they settle on a word at one point where he feels shattered, and that word does a certain amount of work in English. Who knows if it's doing the same amount? And I trust the translators are getting it - an approximation of that gap. But that seems such an important part of this film.

Also, there's just a wit to this film. He can direct the hell out of a movie. I mean, cinematically, he positions his actors in a frame, as in when they are in the same room but not actually in the same room, that really underscores that connection, which is more, as I say, chaste than fiery.

HARRIS: Yes. I'm glad you pointed those moments out, too, because that was kind of what drew me in, were those moments where you couldn't always tell if this was within his imagination or if he was actually in the room with her. And I loved those moments. Now, do you think that the leads had chemistry together? Did you actually believe this relationship or that she would also grow to become interested in him and have that sort of draw to him?

WELDON: Yes and no. I mean, I really like the performance of Chinese actress Tang Wei as the murder suspect. But, I mean, she makes a lot of choices that the film makes the most of. So we see that she laughs quietly to herself whenever she can't find the Korean words right away. And, of course, to us, that makes her, I don't know, kind of charming. But to the detectives, seeing her talk about the death of her husband, seeing her laugh makes her even more suspicious. And in the beginning, she is incredibly, you know, mysterious and inscrutable and gets less so as the film goes on, due to the plot, but I prefer that character inscrutable. And as soon as I can start to scrute (ph) her, I kind of - I get some distance between me and the film at that point.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, without spoiling anything, the film takes a few twists. And this goes, I think, even more heavily into noir territory, where it's like, OK, yes, she definitely is a femme fatale, maybe not in the way we think she might be, but she is there to sort of draw out of our protagonist all of his anxieties. A recurring theme within this film is also that he is depressive and that he is kind of obsessed with murder. He keeps on his wall all these photos of the unsolved mysteries and murders, all of those white whales that he's been able to conquer.

WELDON: Yeah. It's a very "SVU," taking it personally kind of vibe. Yes.

HARRIS: Yes. So there's a lot of genre conventions happening here. But I think what, you know, Park Chan-wook does really well is he sort of balances all of those things. And we talked a little bit about the wit, but the deputy character, who's Soo-wan, he is kind of this bumbling, ineffective younger sidekick to our lead.


HARRIS: And I kind of really like those bits of humor. I thought they worked really well and, also, in a way, felt that morbid sense that we get from the detective shows and that sort of thing. And what did you think of that?

WELDON: Oh, I loved him, and I missed him when he kind of departs the film midway through. You really do. I think this film - as I say, I think it's very funny. I really admire the writing of this, the plotting especially, the way this film keeps finding new ways to bring these two leads together. The only character I felt wasn't treated fairly by the film was the detective's wife, played by Lee Jung-hyun. That's a great actor, but she was kind of underserved by the thinness of the character that the film presents.

HARRIS: Yes. I mean, she is the wife. That is her character. And we've seen this in every movie possible, and she makes the most out of it. But as entertaining as it was, I think that was a sort of drawback for me. And, also, I think - the way it ends, to me, is really sad and depressing and really taps into that longing and that understanding of how this depressive state for the lead is encapsulated in his work and how it kind of bleeds into his personal life. And I felt that that was a little bit predictable, in my sense, although what elevates it for me is just the way that those final moments really just play out in this desperate and beautiful way, like, even the cinematography in all of the shots here. There's a mountain scene at one point where someone is on a mountain. I think that, visually, this is also just really, really stunning to look at.

WELDON: No, absolutely. And emotionally, the film hits a huge high at its end. But I guess that was the issue for me because I saw it working to get there. After presenting such a well-executed mystery thriller, to go that full-out at the end - it's a risk, and for many people, it's going to pay off...

HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah.

WELDON: ...Didn't quite for me.

HARRIS: But overall, I mean, I think it was effective in many ways, and despite the fact that I think you and I both would have liked to see a little bit more...


HARRIS: ...You know, vroom, vroom (laughter).

WELDON: Yeah. I would certainly recommend this film to folks. I think this is a great example of this filmmaker working in a genre that he's worked in before but taking it someplace new. As I say, for people who are more inclined to romance and that kind of pining-for-each-other vibe, that's what they're going to get here.

HARRIS: Absolutely - but also lots of blood and corpses, too.

WELDON: Yeah, lots of blood and corpses.

HARRIS: We haven't even talked about it.

WELDON: Best of both worlds.

HARRIS: Yes. I will say one part that I loved was a moment where they're kind of on a sort of date, and they're walking through this temple. And the entire conversation is about blood and corpses and the things that you wouldn't expect to be talking about in a place where you're supposed to be sort of peaceful and have serenity. That juxtaposition, I think, was one of the high points of that movie for me.

WELDON: Yep. The other thing is, after seeing this film, I wanted some premium soup.

HARRIS: Yes. There's a lot of good food shots in here, too. Well, we want to know what you think about "Decision To Leave." Find us at and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Glen Weldon, thanks for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

HARRIS: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please sign up for our newsletter at This episode was produced by Rommel Wood and Chloee Weiner and edited by Jessica Reedy. Special thanks to Julia Wohl and Susie Cummings for their help on this episode. And Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow.


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