Interview: Park Chan-wook Talks “Decision To Leave”

director Park Chan-wook of DECISION TO LEAVE, photo courtesy of Mongrel Media

Not every film we see nowadays manages to deliver the tone, setting, and mood of film noir even though it has not been defined as a genre. We enjoy rooting for the protagonist but what if the antagonist of the film has the same power of charm to offer as what we see in someone we by default admire?

Written by Park Chan-wook and Chung Seo-kyung and directed by Park Chan-wook, “Decision to Leave” is a film that will have you hanging in the air, hypnotized by its beauty yet mesmerized by its concept – because it’s too dark not because of the colors in it, too eventful to consider it boring and subtly delivered, almost like with surgical precision. It is, indeed, a film worth remembering. A film that will stun you not just with its shocking beginning, but with the ending as well – be prepared – it’s not an easy one to process.

When you have a filmmaker such as Park Chan-wook sitting in front of you, you don’t get much time to ask all the questions you feel are important to get answers to. Yet, you must juggle and scrutinize each and every one of them to ensure the one that is being offered as a question is worthwhile getting the attention of a filmmaker of this kind of caliber.

Interviewing Park Chan-wook the second time was almost like first time. Any information we journalist can extract from him is equal to treasure. Therefore, I am extremely proud to present for you to enjoy an insightful conversation with Park Chan-wook with spoiler-free details. 

MOVIEMOVESME: I’m curious. While the film has the structure and elements of a noir film, it doesn’t feel like one. How do you manage your approach to make this happen?

Park Chan-wook: Well, when I make a movie, I don’t necessarily define my film or define a genre for my film, and then give myself a set of conventions that I need to follow. I don’t do that.

But I believe my film is still within the wider scope of what defines thriller.

Even though I didn’t really think of this film as a noir film, I did think that this story should have one axis where the audience will follow the process of one police, one detective, encountering a case and trying to solve that case.

And at the same time, the other axis is the love story. And that this structure was in my mind from the very beginning. So me and my co-writer, from the very beginning, we had a big objective of making the process of investigation and making the process of these two characters falling in love, become completely inseparable, completely amalgamated. And that was the thinking from the very beginning.

Perhaps that is why you had that impression of this film. Looks like noir, but not quite.

MOVIEMOVESME: If I may, the mystery woman, femme fatale, mystery murder. People have compared this style to Hitchcock in some ways, which is obviously very flattering. But I wonder if you have been influenced by Hitchcock or by similar directors, filmmakers?

Park Chan-wook: Oh, well that was not intended when I was writing the film, it was only after my film was finally released to the public, and I found out that many people actually see that influence in this film. And I didn’t quite get it in the beginning. I was kind of like, “Why do they see that?” And then I read those reviews and I heard from other people, and then I started to see where that comes from. I think just subconsciously, I’m always under that influence of Hitchcock.

Well, with my co-writer, I talked about briefing calendar to be the reference, just for the ambience.

But then, the Japanese filmmaker is the one that who whose works made me want to learn about how to make a film where the characters are trying to hide their feelings, but that are quite transparent in the eye of the audience.

The Mist, the song that is featured in the film was another source of inspiration for this film. And that song was actually used in a Korean film that was made in the ’60s. So of course that particular film was another influence. It’s directed by Kim Soo-yong.

He’s looking up the English title for that film that used… The Mist. So it’s the same name.

MOVIEMOVESME: In this film, we see the role that obsession plays for Hae-jun as a detective. Do you relate to obsession as an artist and filmmaker? Do you have unsolved cases when you’re trying to make a film like Decision to Leave? Are there unsolved cases in your career, so to speak?

Park Chan-wook: Well, there are a couple of projects that have been under my sleeves for a very long time, but I just have not had the investment, received an investment so that I can start the project yet. There’s a Western film. There’s also a crime thriller called the Axe. But this film is not about ax murderer, it’s about firing people. Evil being people.

MOVIEMOVESME: We see how Hae-jun gets fixated on things. And I’m wondering, as the director, is that something you encounter in the creative process?

Park Chan-wook: Well there are so many, so I’m going to have to pick one. I think that would be I spend a lot of time on post-production, especially for color grading and sound. I feel like film industry, the film technology has advanced a lot, but sound is something that has not explored enough. So I think that I spend more time on perfecting the sound more than other directors. And from the very beginning of the writing phase to the completion of the film, I put a lot of efforts into making sure all the sound, including the music, will be as creative possible, as inspiring as possible, and as influential as possible into the subconscious of the audience. So I want to create a soundscape that is as powerful as possible.

And I think this is something that still attracts the audience back to the cinemas.

MOVIEMOVESME: What I like about the lead character is that she had the mind of a serial killer and could have been a great investigator. And she was always somewhere in between. So I wonder how long it took for you to shape her in the way she eventually ended up?

Park Chan-wook: Yeah, I think you’ll be able to hear more about that during the writers’ dialogue where I and Jeong Seo-kyeong will talk more about that. Jeong Seo-kyeong my co-writer is one of my best friends and we’ve written on many different films for a very long time now, and yeah, there’s something there amusing about how we work together. Usually, whenever we are writing a woman character, I try to make her as cool and chic and smart as possible. And the Jeong Seo-kyeong, she always tries to give something faulty about the character or tries to make it a little bit unethical. And it’s also the different opposite situation when we are writing about a male character. Did I answer your question?

MOVIEMOVESME: In Oldboy, you’ve mentioned many times that it didn’t sit right with you that the only female character in it didn’t know the truth. And in this movie, the female character is the only one who does actually know the truth. So I was wondering for you as a filmmaker and as a man, just as an individual, what’s that process been like going from Oldboy where the woman knows nothing to now where the woman’s the only one who knows everything?

Park Chan-wook: Yes. And I did recognize that in Oldboy, but then it was the story that required Mi-do to be oblivious of the truth. But then all in all just, I felt bad for her because as a creator, your character becomes your children or your own. So after Oldboy, after that awareness, I tried to put the female characters more at the forefront of the story, or give her a more active role in driving the narrative forward, give her more power, if not the same power as male characters in this story. So after Oldboy, I tried to find a female co-writer and I found Jeong Seo-kyeong, and that’s where all that journey began.

But then I feel like now there is no need for me to be so bogged down by that idea that I need to make sure that women characters are empowered in the film. I feel now, I think I can be free of that idea, because I’ve been kind of working on that up until Little Drummer Girl.

But still, whenever I start creating something in a blank paper, from the blank paper, women character always comes to my mind first. And I feel that in the television and the film world, there are still more room for women character to really stand out. And that there are so many diverse things that we can explore about women characters.

MOVIEMOVESME: One of the writers that I thought about watching this film, and actually The Handmaiden as well, is Hitchcock, who wrote a lot about eroticism. He has two major ideas. One is that eroticism is tied to death, and the other is that to desire something is to destroy yourself. And I’m curious how eroticism continues to have such an important role in your work, particularly as very few filmmakers today deal with that subject.

Park Chan-wook: As I said, I didn’t think of Hitchcock when I was making this film. I wasn’t thinking about that guy when I was working on these films. But yes, eroticism is something that makes human, a human. It’s a key element of human nature, and it’s something that needs to be explored more deeply and more widely in the art world. Not just in film, but also in other art forms too. And eroticism, it’s something good that makes somebody’s life a lot more energetic and revitalized and also gives pleasure. But at the same time, it has such negative and dark impulses too. So it’s the coexistence, eroticism is something that has both the positive side and the dark side too. And when I deal with eroticism in my work, I try to see both sides.

MOVIEMOVESME: Do you see modern Korean cinema as a movement right now? Or do you think it’s a coincidence that there are just these individual creators that happen to be successful at the same time?

Park Chan-wook: I think this recent boom of Korean films and content, I think that’s a part of the process of maturation. If you see the history of American cinema, they, during the Hollywood studio era, they already reached their peak. They already perfected their technology, their techniques, and their aesthetics of films during the ’40s and ’50s. And then they reached it so high that it almost seems like these days, they’re kind of coming down, even. But in Korea, we were in a state where we really still needed technological advancement, and of course we were colonized. And then after we had the Korean War. And after that, during the dictatorship, there was strong censorship, which meant that there was no freedom of expression. And only when we reached it during the ’80s, then finally we were able to have the freedom of speech. And then, so if there’s a freedom of speech, and then of course to make a film, you need money, and then you need a lot of money.

So all of that, the technology, the capital, and the freedom of expression, these three elements are the basic foundation for anything to flourish. And I think that happened during the 2000s when Korean films really started to tap on those three basic foundations. And then since then, on the Korean soil has been very mature, that now we are reaping those fruits now.

MOVIEMOVESME: You have a reputation, mainly because of The Vengeance Trilogy, of graphic and disturbing violence. And this movie is not as violent. In fact, it seems to be about the aftermath of violence. Has your approach to violence or attitude toward it evolved or changed?

Park Chan-wook: Well, what you saw is only the result of me listening to the voices of my characters, and what requires me in order to make the story.

In order for me to invite the audience to take a peek into the depth of the character’s emotions that are hidden outside, it was necessary for me to use less violence that are flashy or graphic, that will catch one’s eye. Because I want those eyes to go see deep inside. So I didn’t want anything that can distract my audience’s eyes. And also that could kind of linger in one’s mind. If the violence is too graphic, then you’re going to have that lingering image that would distract you from really getting into the psyche of the character.

Watch Trailer for “Decision to Leave” plays now in Toronto

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