Long before Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ triumphed at the Oscars and ‘Squid Game’ swept the world, Park Chan-wook astounded global audiences with his lavishly stylistic, outrageously violent and devilishly elaborate take on Korean cinema.
His latest, “Decision to Leave,” is in some ways more restrained than Park’s earlier films. It lacks the brutal violence of “Oldboy” (2003) or the eroticism of “The Handmaiden” (2016). But this might be his most devastating.
The film, which is South Korea’s Oscar nomination, is a twisty noir intertwined with a love story. Park Hae-il plays a Busan police detective who falls in love with a murder subject (Tang Wei). Their evolving relationship unfolds like an investigation. Intricate and mischievous, “Decision to Leave” is yet another genre tapestry for the masterful Park to turn into a stylish plaything. At the Cannes Film Festival in May, it won him the Best Director award.
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release on Friday, Park caught up with a reporter during a break from the New York Film Festival. Through an interpreter, he spoke about making “Decision to Leave” (one of the biggest box office hits of 2022 in South Korea), his role in expanding the imprint of Korean cinema and why – regardless of bloody hammerheads or octopuses eaten whole – love has always truly been its main subject.
AP: The room you write in has been compared to the room that traps the protagonist in “Oldboy.” Is it true?
PARK: (Laughs) When we designed the house, we made a room specifically for me to write. It’s a small room with just a table and a desk and it almost feels like you’re going to suffocate inside. But I don’t just write in this piece. I really write anywhere. I write in offices, cafes, hotels and on the plane.
AP: You live a relatively quiet life between movies, don’t you?
PARK: My house is in a small town in a remote area outside of Seoul. My production company is also located on the outskirts of Seoul. So I’m almost like someone who works in a company that goes back and forth between my office and my house.
AP: What did you have in mind when you and your co-writer, Jeong Seo-kyeong, wrote “Decision to Leave”?
PARK: At that time, I was working on the post-production of “Little Drummer Girl,” and I had to direct the entire six-episode series myself. It took a long time and was also very physically demanding. I felt homesick. Of course, my wife was with me, but still. During this post-production phase, my co-writer went on a family trip to London and met me twice at a cafe. We had general conversations about what my next job should be. The two basic principles we started with were: I wanted the film to be a Korean film and I wanted it to be shown in theaters. Then, I wanted it to be a detective film. I think it’s because at the time I was reading the Martin Beck series. I was very influenced by that. I wanted to start from a very familiar setting: a detective assigned to a murder mystery. And I wanted to do a romance.
AP: Your film suggests that everyone is guilty in love, but mistrust will kill it.
PARK: That’s a nice way to put it. When you’re in love, you’re naturally curious about the other person. Want to know more about them. Throughout this loving process, there is always that feeling of doubt that makes you want to dig deeper. When it takes dramatic form, it can even turn into stalking their social media or looking at the phone or asking questions to test if they are lying. Many people do such things or have a desire to do such things. When you get to that point of doubt and suspense, I think it becomes really similar to a detective’s investigation.
AP: Love is perhaps not what some people immediately consider to be the main theme of your films. Why do you think you keep coming back to love stories?
PARK: All my films are essentially about people in love. But each of these works in my filmography has its own genre elements, such as thriller or horror. I think it comes out too strong and makes people forget it’s about love. An artist’s occupation is naturally to explore what humanity really is, and I believe the best subject to explore the characteristics of humanity through is love. But even as an artist, love is the best subject. Love has thrill, it has mystery, it has comedy, it touches you and horrifies you.
AP: Your film is often funny, even farcical, but ends, in an unforgettable way, in tragedy. How have you seen this tonal arc work?
PARK: There are tragedies where it’s just a progression of sad events that happen. But I guess there’s also a tragedy that comes from a movie that doesn’t seem like that. This contrast brings out the tragedy even more. There is something very far-fetched in their situation. There is a joke that comes from sympathy. Without laughing, I have the impression of imposing an emotion on the public. As if I were saying to them, “You’re sad, aren’t you? “You’re horrified, aren’t you?” There’s a sense of wholeness that comes from the humor that fills in all the missing holes.
AP: The way technology shapes the lives of men and women has also been a feature of your films. Why have you cluttered “Decision to Leave” with phones, text messages and translation apps?
PARK: I wanted this movie to feel very classic and have those mythic elements. If you consider the last scene, it really looks like Orpheus. But I didn’t want it to be the classic kind of film with handwritten letters. If I had wanted to do that, I could have put it in a setting where there was no telephone. Many directors feel the desire to do this. Instead, I chose to actively incorporate modern technology, even more than you see on teen shows like “Euphoria.” Making this decision was an important moment for me.
AP: Are you proud of your role in spreading Korean film and pop culture?
PARK: If I had set myself the goal of spreading the love of Korean cinema and had worked hard to achieve it, I would have some pride in doing so. But the truth is that it happened like that. It’s just because I try to have fun doing my works and allow the public to have fun watching my works. I’m never bothered by non-Korean audiences or foreign audiences when making my film. It’s more that I make my film with the intention of Korean audiences in the future to enjoy it. Fifty or a hundred years later, I want them to enjoy it as much as the contemporary public.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
This story was originally published October 12, 2022 2:58 p.m.