Readers Write In #547: Maid of the Mist

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Readers Write In #547: Maid of the Mist


By Karthik Amarnath

Unpacking the centerfold of Park Chan-Wook’s “Decision to Leave”

At a little past the halfway point in Park Chan Wook’s moody new film Decision to Leave, there’s a three minute scene that unfolds at a marketplace. We hear muffled sounds of shoppers but we don’t see them; we’re staring at a bunch of red snappers. The fish are laid out on a bed of ice, and their lifeless eyes are staring right back at us. A hand is stretched out and a finger starts poking each eye. Suddenly our perspective switches, and one of the fish eyes becomes our own. We get a misty view of a woman in a red coat who’s doing the poking. She draws her hand back, smells her finger, and we see the man beside her. He’s there, but not really there, his mind’s elsewhere. Its no gimmick that we see all this through a dead fish’s eye. The man is a police detective, and he peers into eyes of the dead everyday. 

The woman is his wife, and she reaches out and touches his coat, she checks his pockets. Our perspective switches again. We’re now seeing the detective’s back. The sudden cuts and perspective shifts are no gimmicks either. A detective’s work requires seeing things from all angles, and the film keeps giving us different, often weird vantages. It’s disorienting but it slowly builds towards something. We see the detective stretch his coat out, and his wife drops her hand into his breast pocket. It’s playful and she smiles, but the detective is unmoved. He turns his face away, and our view shifts to elsewhere in the market. We see the other woman.

We know this other woman. From the very first moment she had arrived, ten minutes into the film, draped in a dizzying red gown, we knew what this woman means to this movie, what she means to this man. Like Judy Barton in Vertigo, Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, this other woman is the muse, an obsession, a great unsolved mystery for the master detective. In this scene though, she’s with another man. When she first looks up, she’s at the center of the frame, fully masking the man. She sees the detective, then moves over to reveal the man. Its her husband. We cut to the detective, and his eyes are wide open, he’s in disbelief. The woman knows that the detective’s seen her, and she locks her arm into her husband’s, and they slow walk hand in hand. Its a tease. The dance begins. 

At first, the detective and his wife are at the center of the frame splitting this other woman and her husband. The detective, still in shock, half asks “What are you..” and checks himself. Quickly, the perspective switches, and its the detective and his wife who are split, pushed to the periphery, and the woman and her husband are together center frame. “I moved here,” the woman says, with a coy smile. Now we see both the couples facing each other, and the mood is tense.

Its no coincidence that at this moment, occupying the center of the frame between the couples, is the array of red snappers. The sea connects these couples in more ways than one. The detective and the other woman had first met in the coastal city of Busan and now both of them, through seeming serendipity, have moved to Ipo, another seaside town. The detective asks the woman why she moved to Ipo. “I like the mist,” the woman replies, and the detective’s gaze turns pensive. His relationship with the woman is like the mist, a dreamy haze, veiled in mystery, a willful blur of what lies ahead. 

“Honey, this is the man who suspected me,” we hear this woman say to her husband, the focus still on the detective who had investigated the death of the woman’s former husband in Busan. The other man she’s with now in Ipo seems to know all about that, and so he introduces himself as “the next husband.” There’s a sly glint in his eye when he asks the detective why he moved to Ipo. The detective doesnt respond. The dance continues.

The camera first shows the the other woman in the center of the frame splitting the detective and his wife. The camera pans, and now we see the wife in the center, she’s reclaimed her ground. She checks the detective’s pocket, finds what she was looking for, a tissue to wipe her fingers. This harks us back to an earlier scene in Busan, where the other woman had checked the detective’s pockets too. The wife’s act was functional, but the other woman’s was forceful. The way she had rifled through all his pockets, pulled out his lip balm, applied it on her own lips, then forced the balm on his, it was eroticism without the least hint of sex. And that’s because sex for the detective is just functional. He’d say to his wife that even when they hate each other they ”should just do it once a week.” With this other woman, there’s no sex, but there’s smoldering sexual tension. And thats what draws him, the agony of unmet desire, the thrill of an unsolvable case. 

Along with the seaside, sea life connects these people too. The detective, like those snappers we saw, just cant shut his eyes. He’s an insomniac, thoughts and images from his cases constantly occupy him. Back in Busan, it was the other woman who had taught him to fall asleep, told him that he needed to close his eyes and imagine a jellyfish. Later in Ipo, when he visits a sleep specialist with his wife, there’s a giant screen with floating jellyfish. Its one of those meditatively luminescent visuals; the pillow-like softness and soothing translucence makes the creature look naturally soporific. But its more than that. As sea enthusiasts will tell you, jellyfish have neither heart nor brain. And that, for the detective, is the key to good sleep, to stop thinking or feeling. To think and to feel— to be human— is to be awake. 

But does being awake equate to being alive? The detective’s wife didn’t seem to think so. Ever since the detective’s move from Busan to Ipo, although he’s always awake, she thinks he’s withering away. To make him feel more alive, she brings up another sea creature— turtle juice, she says, would be good for his testosterone. 

But right here, in the market, the detective doesn’t need any turtle juice. The woman who likes the mist has just awakened something in him. And his wife’s noticed that. She tells off the other woman that nobody comes to Ipo for the mist, they “only leave because of the fog.” She warns the woman that she will soon have to deal with the mold, a veiled reference to her own marriage. Or maybe just marriage, for that’s what grows out of a relationship once the dreamy haze of infatuation has disappeared.

“What brings you to Ipo?” the woman’s husband asks the detective once more, this time cracking his knuckles. Now there’s an echo of the camera movement from earlier. We first see the other woman in the center with her husband by her side. The camera pans, and the detective is now in the center splitting the woman and her husband. The detective says he moved for his wife. She works for the nuclear power plant in Ipo. We then get another mold and mist contrast between the two women. The other woman’s work also has to do with the nuclear reactor, except she doesnt work for the plant. Instead she’s a tour guide for fans of a fictional TV show about the plant. The wife, unsurprisingly, is no fan of the show.

We also get a contrast between the two men here. The detective, in an attempt to diffuse tension, makes a joke about cleaner nuclear. At first, he’s the only one laughing. But then, the other woman’s husband follows, with an obnoxiously fake laugh, and he goes on to crack a tasteless joke about being a stock analyst. Now this man is the only one laughing. 

Its not just this scene, but the entire film is rife with echos and contrasts and mirror images. There’s two couples, two cities, two lieutenants, two countries, two languages. This market scene is the centerfold between two murder investigations. There’s also mirrors used in a myriad of ways. Like the scenes in an investigation room, when it feels like the detective and his suspect are at times talking to each other, at times talking with each other, at times talking past each other. Subjects in the mirror are sometimes closer than they appear, sometimes farther. The film keeps throwing at us such unusual, unnerving angles, and it also toys so much with chronology, that decoding our responses is far more confounding than the investigations that unfold. 

And yet, like a puzzle has somehow been pieced together inside us, we find ourselves drawn into the surreal mindscape of the main characters— the detective and the other woman. Now at the end of the three minute market scene, when the tension dissipates, our focus fully shifts to the two of them. Their spouses recede to the background, the noise of the crowd starts fading, and hauntingly slow notes of a piano seep into the soundscape. We see traded glances, stolen smiles. We sense a wistful longing, unmet desire. The woman shows him her sleeve, he recognizes the color. Is it blue or is it green? It doesn’t matter. He can finally feel, he’s there, in the mist, their mist. 

Two scenes later, we see the detective in his kitchen. He’s awake, alive, and armed with a knife. The red snapper, with its head lopped off, lays in front of him. We hear a phone ring, and his wife says its his dream come true.

There’s been a murder.


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