Dive Into Park Chan-wook’s New Cinematic World


In this week’s FRONTPAGE, legendary filmmaker Park Chan-wook walks us through his latest cinematic creation, Decision to Leave.

If you have any expectations for Park Chan-wook’s new movie, set them aside. Decision to Leave (2022) is nothing really like his cult classics (Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Lady Vengeance), but it promises to be equally gripping. In Park’s own words, it is his “most complete and satisfactory work to date.”

Set in modern-day Korea, the film follows a detective (Hae-joon, played by Park Hae-il) as he tries to solve a mysterious death, entangling him in an emotional whirlwind with the deceased’s wife (Seo-rae, played by Tang Wei). Despite what audiences might be used to seeing from Park, the new 138-minute melodrama is without his signature elements of hair-raising tension, merciless violence, and explicit sex. “I wanted to make a movie that was pure and classic — a movie stripped of everything but love,” Park says. “Pure, in the sense that it stays true to the basics… with the minimum elements that make up a film.”

The result is a deliciously colorful yet elegantly restrained portrayal of love, and the uncertainty, anxiety, elation, and despair that come with it. Subtle nuances are delivered through sharp, heightened details that leave viewers with intense curiosity, conflated suspense and anticipation, and a bit of sexual intrigue. “I want this movie to be different and personal to everyone. Decision to Leave is a very private movie.”

On a sunny day in June, before the Korean release of the film, and after his Best Director win at Cannes, Park sat down for a deep-dive into his new work, his thoughts on the process and messaging, and what it ultimately means to be in love.

Indiewire, among other publications, cited Decision to Leave as “the most romantic film of the year.” What are your thoughts on that?

It is a romantic movie. I agree. I wanted to make an affectionate movie that ended in an emotional whirl. I’m not a romanticist at all myself. I’m the opposite — should I say, realistic or pragmatic. But my movies open up different worlds. There’s a pretty big gap between me and my movie characters. Almost nothing in common.

Did you have any difficulties filming with Tang Wei because of the language barrier?

We made the female protagonist Chinese so we could cast Tang Wei. The moment I saw Lust, Caution (2007), I decided I would work with her one day. The language barrier wasn’t a problem. I’ve worked in America and England before and knew that wasn’t a decisive challenge, as long as you have a talented translator, and a bit of patience. There’s an advantage to it as well. The communication delay gives you time to think, without reacting emotionally. You can listen more calmly, and approach the core of the message without preconceived notions. We use different languages but we have the same job in that we are all technicians of human emotions. For example, engineers from different countries could still read the same floor plan. We had the script and understood its terms, so it was fine.

For those of us who may not be familiar with the lead actor, Park Hae-il, could you tell us why you casted him?

You may have seen him in Memories of Murder (2003). He’s very impressive, and unforgettable in that movie. He has clear, transparent eyes, and there was a chilling effect to someone like him playing a man who could be a serial killer. Hae-il has played many different roles, like in Rules of Dating (2005), which is also quite good. If you asked Koreans what they think of him, everyone’s response would be different. He has a clean face that can take on many roles.

What do you want audiences to take away from the movie? What is your intended message or emotion you wanted to convey?

The characters are hiding a lot of emotions. They speak indirectly or say the opposite of what they feel. If you observe them carefully, it’s easy to catch what they are trying to hide. I want this movie to call to mind parts of yourself or remind you of who you know or what happened to you in the past. I want this movie to be different and personal to everyone. For example, many people could watch my movie, Joint Security Area (2000), and have the same interpretation. But Decision to Leave is a very personal and private movie.

The love story in this film feels different from your past works.

I was working on The Little Drummer Girl (2018) series on BBC. What’s really important for me when deciding my next project is what I’m working on at the moment. For the most part, I want to do something completely different. I wanted to do a theatrical film rather than a drama series, and get away from a political subject to a pure love story. I wanted to do a love story with the minimum elements that make up a film, without anything extraneous.

Congratulations on your Cannes award! I’m curious to hear about your production process. How do you think will you remember this project?

Covid was definitely a nerve-wracking issue, but everyone went through it so I can’t say we had an especially difficult time. Normally toward the end of filming, the release date is roughly fixed, but we didn’t even know if we could release the movie at all. Because there wasn’t a set release date, we had a never-ending editing process. The coloring and sound took too long. I kept on changing things and my team had a really hard time. But because we took a long time, we could perfect it. I can say that Decision to Leave is my most complete and satisfactory work to date.

You’ve said that Decision to Leave is a love story for grown-ups, and that the characters uphold their human dignity. What does it mean for you to be a grown-up, and to have dignity?

Like Hae-joon says in the movie, dignity comes from pride. I think pride can come from your moral values; if you believe in your way of life and have nothing to be ashamed of. That’s what I was thinking when I said this was a mature love story. And the characters, rather than being too emotional or expressive, are restrained.

How do you think you have grown or changed as a filmmaker, and as a person, from making Decision to Leave?

I wanted to make a movie that was pure and classic. When I say pure, I don’t mean childlike innocence. I mean a movie stripped of everything but love, and pure in the sense that it stays true to the basics of the most archetypal art of film, without any exaggerations. I tried my best to achieve that goal, and while I can’t judge for myself if I’ve succeeded, the effort itself was very rewarding for me.

“Shattered” is a keyword in the film. Why did you choose this word over others, and how do you think the characters interpreted this word?

I don’t have anything else to say or add other than what the viewers felt. “Shatter” is more of a structural word; you use it to describe a collapsing home or building. For Hae-joon, it was like this foundation he spent his whole life building so carefully, came crashing down [with Seo-rae]. I thought about other words, but “shattered” was what first came to mind, and nothing else seemed to really fit.

In the film, Hae-joon uses eye drops in a lot of important scenes. Is this your intended mise en scène?

The movie was inspired by a song called Mist (1972) by Chung Hoon-hee. The lyrics say, “Open your eyes in the mist.” Mist (fog) can hinder your vision, and for Hae-joon, you could say his vision was hindered by his emotions — or in his own words, because he went “crazy for a woman.” He uses eye drops because he’s confused, and he wants to see things clearly.

You’ve said before that you don’t consider yourself an artistic filmmaker. Do you think the globalization of Korean cinema has changed the way Korean film is received and evaluated around the world?

Internationally, Korean films are still seen as part of the art house category. That’s a result of the industry’s system [where foreign films are shown as indie], but I don’t think it’s accurate. Parasite (2019) was able to go beyond that limitation. With that as the starting point, I hope audiences will come to see that Korean films are not just for the elite movie buff. That was never the intention. I’m not saying I just want to sell more tickets, but these works are not made for a specific group of people. I want everyone to enjoy my movies, and easily approach them.

How do you think the rise in popularity of Korean culture has affected Korean cinema?

Worldwide attention contributes to the development of Korean film. I think it’s a good influence. We’re getting more diversified investments. I’ve been saying all along that we need more cultural exchange, and I’m glad it’s finally happening. It helps all sides. Various streaming platforms also encourage diverse competition and they nurture talented people. Higher investments enable creative autonomy and creators can now view their works from a wider perspective outside of Korean culture. I’m not saying we should create to cater to the Western audience, but if your work can carry some universality, it might survive for longer.

Can you tell us about your next project?

I’m writing a script for The Sympathizer by a Vietnamese American author (Viet Thahn Nguyen). It’s a Pulitzer-winning book. HBO will release it in a series of seven episodes. I’m going to direct about three of them.

This interview has been translated from a group interview in Korean, and edited for clarity. Decision to Leave releases in US theaters on October 14.



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