Between the Lines: Park Chan-wook on the subtle elegance of Decision to Leave

Suspect Seo-rae (Tang Wei) keeps a close eye on Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) in Decision to Leave.
Suspect Seo-rae (Tang Wei) keeps a close eye on Detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) in Decision to Leave.

Cannes prize winner Park Chan-wook on tragic romance, modern technology, and sensual storytelling in his “classical detective story” Decision to Leave.

The name “Park Chan-wook” conjures up a colorful—and disturbing—series of images: The kinetic ultraviolence of Oldboy’s famous hallway fight. Blade meeting Achilles tendon at the end of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Uncle Kouzuki’s octopus tank in The Handmaiden. The lurid blood orgies between Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin in Thirst. But Director Park’s flair for unforgettably grisly imagery is only part of his story as a filmmaker.

Director Park broke out in South Korea with the action/drama hybrid Joint Security Area in 2000, before embarking on a series of the ultraviolet revenge thrillers that would become his signature. But even as his “Vengeance trilogy” was blowing minds abroad, Park and his longtime co-writer Jeong Seo-kyeong were already working on 2006’s I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK, a gently deranged rom-com about a kleptomaniac and a young woman convinced she’s a robot who fall in love at a psychiatric hospital. And while Park has been a Cannes darling since Oldboy won the Grand Prix back in 2004, the festival’s rapturous reception of Decision to Leave this year reaffirmed the director’s status as a master craftsman and global auteur.

While a movie is made up of sound and image, with some movies you can really feel a sense of touch, or you can feel a sense of smell. That’s the magic of film. That’s the kind of film that I want to make.

—⁠Park Chan-wook
Is there anything more romantic than sharing a cup of tea with a woman who may or may not have murdered her husband?
Is there anything more romantic than sharing a cup of tea with a woman who may or may not have murdered her husband?

Throughout Director Park’s long, multifaceted career, a few things have remained constant: his interest in new technologies, his talent for conveying sensual experiences—both pleasurable and painful—and his iconoclastic approach to genre. Decision to Leave, a film that Park himself notes is one of his more mild in terms of content, ticks all of these boxes. It’s a tactile, swooningly romantic film with multiple plot points that revolve around smartphones, a deconstruction of the hard-boiled detectives and femme fatales of film noir that wears its affection for what Park calls “classical detective stories” on its cashmere sleeve.

Park Hae-il stars as Hae-joon, a veteran detective with a doting wife at home who is assigned to investigate the mysterious death of a man on a mountaintop. What at first looks to be a simple accident quickly becomes much more complicated as Hae-joon meets the man’s widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who has an unusually nonplussed reaction to her husband’s death. Hae-joon’s obsession with Seo-rae blurs the line between a detective investigating a suspect and a man falling in love.

Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League with Director Park and his 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award—a bespoke wrestling championship belt.
Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest co-founder Tim League with Director Park and his 2022 Lifetime Achievement Award—a bespoke wrestling championship belt.

The tension between the diabolical Director Park of the mid-’00s and the elder statesman who made Decision to Leave was especially pronounced at Fantastic Fest 2022, where Alamo Drafthouse co-founder Tim League thanked Park for making Oldboy—the film that inspired him to start the festival—with the tongue-in-cheek presentation of a wrestling-style championship belt. After the audience collectively dropped to one knee and shouted my liege!” at the bemused filmmaker, Park took the microphone and said through a translator that he appreciated the tribute, but “I’m not sure if this is the right festival for this film.”

He went on to note that Decision to Leave has none of the ultraviolence that League found so compelling in Oldboy, but that it was his funniest film in years and the audience should feel free to enjoy it as such. They happily complied. I met with Director Park the next morning at a hotel in Austin, where the filmmaker sipped from an enamel teacup while thoughtfully considering his answers.

Note: This interview was conducted through a translator, and sections have been edited for clarity in English.

Hae-joon gets more than he bargained for as his infatuation with Seo-rae grows deeper.
Hae-joon gets more than he bargained for as his infatuation with Seo-rae grows deeper.

I know you said you weren’t sure if this was the right festival for Decision to Leave, but this audience seemed to really enjoy it. I heard a lot of laughter in the theater.
Park Chan-wook: I’m happy to hear that. It’s so hard to [make humor] transcend cultural and language barriers. So when the humor works, you can tell that everything else works as well.

This film is all about characters who don’t say what they really mean. How does that express itself visually?
They don’t know each other’s emotions, or their own emotions. But the audience knows, which is what’s interesting. The fun of this movie is that you can say [to yourself], “that man is clearly into this woman. But why is he acting that way?” And the most important challenge for me, my task, was to express that in the best way possible.

One of the easiest ways to achieve that [effect] is when a man is looking at a woman, the woman can’t see the man’s face. But we can, and we can see the man’s expression. This is like a game between [the audience and the characters], which is how I use the POV shots. Another thing [to think about] is, “where are these characters looking?”

But I didn’t realize this with just one or two elements—many elements come together and make a movie.

“When a carpenter has more tools in his toolbox, he has more to work with in his workshop. It’s the same case of a filmmaker.” —Park Chan-wook
“When a carpenter has more tools in his toolbox, he has more to work with in his workshop. It’s the same case of a filmmaker.” —Park Chan-wook

iPhones and apps are very important in this film. And back in 2011, you made the short film Night Fishing on an iPhone, which you co-directed with your brother. What is your interest in incorporating technology into your films?
I don’t quite remember whether it was last year or this year, but I did film another short with the iPhone 13 titled Life is But a Dream. The credits say I’m the only director, but I actually directed [that one] with my brother as well. I also wanted to make a 3D film—I tried to do it for The Handmaiden, but it cost too much.

Because the history of film goes hand in hand with the history of technology, all film directors should always be interested in technology. When a carpenter has more tools in his toolbox, he has more to work with in his workshop. It’s the same in the case of a filmmaker.

And the technology in this film is a reflection of the lives of a modern person. At first, I wanted to avoid using technology [in the film], because this is supposed to be a classical detective film, and a classical romance. When you’re trying to confess love, it looks more elegant when you write a letter instead of a text. And in the detective genre, it’s much cooler to see a detective write by hand on paper. [It’s cooler] to write documents and glue photos on top of them and to tie them in a bundle than to see someone work on an iPad.

But if I were to go in that direction, it would be like I was ignoring the life of a modern person. So instead, I took the route of actively embracing such technology in the film.

Director Park’s striking aesthetic touch and tactile world-building are in full force in Decision to Leave.
Director Park’s striking aesthetic touch and tactile world-building are in full force in Decision to Leave.

What is your approach to creating texture in your films? For example, in this film, Seo-rae wears fuzzy sweaters and satin skirts. The effect is very sensual.
Decision to Leave might not look as sensual or as provocative as my other films, but I did always want to make [it] a sensual film. While a movie is made up of sound and image, with some movies you can really feel a sense of touch, or you can feel a sense of smell. That’s the magic of film. That’s the kind of film that I want to make.

Is romance more romantic if it’s doomed?
In everyday life, we also have a sense of romance. Even without dramatic thoughts or a sad ending, we can still feel those romantic emotions. What I tried to achieve [with this film] is to exaggerate those emotions into a sense of romanticism, and create a romanticist story made up of elevated emotions. And in this case, the romance becomes more dramatic when it’s combined with tragedy.

On set we’re always laughing and having fun and playing around. It’s only when the camera rolls that you can see [the] anger on screen.

—⁠Park Chan-wook

Given that this is a classical detective story, you could see Seo-rae as a femme fatale. Were you playing with that archetype?
The film is divided into two parts. If it ended at part one, it would be a classical film noir: a man has been exploited and tricked by the woman he loves. And if that was the ending, then Seo-rae would be the femme fatale. But what I set [out to do] when I started developing this film—even before I wrote the screenplay—was to take an additional step beyond this genre.

[Director Park explains that he and co-writer Chung Seo-kyung started with the story of a woman who meets a detective when her husband dies, and meets him again years later—his exact words contain major spoilers, which we will spare readers.]

That’s the idea that we started off with. The intention behind this is that part two is an entirely new story. We move beyond the genre [formula], and this becomes a simple love story. So by the end of the film, I don’t consider Seo-rae to be a femme fatale.

Park Chan-wook accepting the award for Best Director for Decision to Leave at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
Park Chan-wook accepting the award for Best Director for Decision to Leave at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

In Oldboy, you have a character, Woo-jin, who is very obsessive. The characters in Decision to Leave are also obsessive, but they’re driven by love, and Woo-jin is driven by hate. As a director, particularly working with actors, is there a difference in the way that you portray these strong emotions depending on the motivation?
It’s not fundamentally different. I don’t like to let things get decided on set. So I decide everything in advance. Storyboards, the way it should be edited, from the beginning to the end. [I do this for] even the littlest conversations within the movie. I then publish that into a book, and give it to everyone in the crew.

And with the actors, before our shooting begins we have different sessions. We have a lot of discussions in those sessions. Sometimes it’s one on one with me and an actor, or it might be three people talking together. Sometimes it’s even more people. It takes on different forms. We don’t just read the dialogue in those sessions—we even go over every action line, and I explain the reasoning behind every action line. I also ask their opinions on the dialogue, as to whether this or that works. And we have a lot of discussions about that.

So regardless of whether we’re trying to express hatred or anger or love [on the day], all of this has been processed and talked through already. And I mentioned the storyboard in this case because all of these emotions aren’t just expressed through dialogue, or through the performance. It’s in the camera angle, for instance. And when all of this comes together, that’s when the emotion comes through.

And the actors I work with, they don’t necessarily work by method acting or anything like that. So even when we’re, for instance, trying to film a scene that is filled with anger, on set we’re always laughing and having fun and playing around. It’s only when the camera rolls that you can see that anger on screen.


Decision to Leave’ is in US theaters now via MUBI.

Further Reading

Tags

Share This Article