Park Chan-wook made a big impact in Cannes in 2004 with his lurid revenge drama Oldboy, which took the Grand Prix from Quentin Tarantino’s jury, made a cult star of Choi Min-sik, and alerted audiences everywhere to the perils of eating live sushi. Since then, the director has been a semi-regular fixture at the festival, returning in 2009 with his literary vampire horror Thirst and again in 2016 with The Handmaiden, a delirious, taboo-busting erotic thriller set in 1930s Korea. Director Park’s trademark is not just his fluidity when dealing with genre but his mastery in bending it to his will—and Decision to Leave promises to be yet another stylish, category-defying composition.
DEADLINE: What is the premise of Decision to Leave?
PARK CHAN-WOOK: A detective is dispatched to a scene of death of a man who has fallen from the mountains. There are three possibilities with this case: either he took a wrong step during a climb and he accidentally fell, or he committed suicide, or someone pushed him off the cliff. And so, the detective calls in the wife of the dead man to have her confirm the identity of the man, but he notices that there’s something special about her. He doesn’t quite know what it is, and there are other detectives who are suspicious of her, but nonetheless, although he doesn’t want to acknowledge this, he is unknowingly attracted to her for some reason. He feels a mixture of suspicion and this attraction, so he starts to carry out an in-depth investigation on her.
DEADLINE: What inspired you?
PARK: There’s a song that’s featured in the film, a Korean song called “The Mist“. It’s a popular song from the ’70s. It was a big hit when I was little—I listened to it a lot, and I loved the song after I grew up as well. It’s a famous song sung by a female singer. I was searching for that song on YouTube for the first time in a while and I discovered that the same song was sung by a male singer. It’s a singer that I almost worship, and I discovered that when I was in London in the middle of post-production for The Little Drummer Girl. And so, after hearing that song, I thought about featuring the same song sung by a male singer and a female singer in one film, and, naturally, I began to think about a love story between a man and a woman based around that song.
At the same time, Jeong Seo-kyeong, the screenwriter that I always work with, was visiting London with her family to see me. We were grabbing a cup of coffee and we started talking about our next project, and I brought up what I was thinking about that love story between a man and a woman, and so we started talking about what kind of profession this male character should have. And then that’s when I brought up the fact that I love Martin Beck, the Swedish crime detective novel series that features a very charming detective. And so, I talked about how I would love to create a character like that, and then we started talking about the female character, what kind woman is she? And then Jeong Seo-kyeong brought up Tang Wei, and the fact that she wants to work with Tang Wei and that we should create a character that Tang Wei could play.
DEADLINE: The official description of this film is “police procedural/romance”, which is a very unusual hybrid.
PARK: You could say that I wanted to create a film that has both the elements of a police procedural and a romance film, but that’s not exactly what I wanted to do. What I wanted to create was a film where the police procedural is not separated from the romance where the investigation in itself is a process of their love blossoming. So, if you take the interrogation, for example, where the detective and the suspect sit across from each other and they talk and the police interrogates her, that entire process could seem like a process of their love blossoming. People who are in love, they quarrel as well. They flirt and there’s a kind of push and pull that goes between two people who love each other. And I thought the interrogation process could be quite similar.
And so, because this is a romance, because there is love between these two characters, these personal emotions end up influencing the investigation, which means those elements are inseparable. But you might have noticed that in the press release, we don’t bring up film noir or femme fatale. We try not to use those phrases because this film is quite distant from concepts, traditional concepts like that. So, in other words, this film is less genre-based. Of course, it does feature a police investigation, but it doesn’t really follow the genre conventions. For this film, I prioritize the personal and real emotions that individuals have.
DEADLINE: Since when have you ever followed genre conventions?
PARK: [Laughs] Well, I think it’s more prominent in this film that I don’t follow these conventions.
DEADLINE: How long have you known Jeong Seo-kyeong, and how does the collaboration work?
PARK: It was before Lady Vengeance, so let me try to figure out how many years… I think I first met her around 2003 or 2004. We’ve worked on many films together. Even to this day, she’s still my best friend. The only sad thing is that now she’s become so famous that she can’t give me a lot of time [laughs]. So, as I mentioned before, often we start talking about a project from a blank slate, where nothing has been determined yet, and so we constantly go back and forth. We talk, we argue and debate and let it take shape. And I really enjoy that process with her. It feels like when a baby is in the womb for nine months, it starts from a cell and then it ultimately grows into a human being. It feels like we’re watching that process through an ultrasound.
DEADLINE: Why were you both so keen to work with Tang Wei?
PARK: Her performance in Lust, Caution left a stark impression on all of us, and there is also a film that is not well known outside of Korea—she was in a film called Late Autumn, which was really popular in Korea. And so Korean audiences are very familiar with Tang Wei, although she’s a Chinese actress, because Late Autumn was a Korean film by a Korean director [Kim Tae-yong]. Tang Wei as an actress, she has this boldness in her, where there seems to be no limit to what she can express, but at the same time, it’s very difficult to figure out what she’s thinking about. She’s hard to read. She’s like this abyss, a deep well, and… I don’t want to call her mysterious, but she has this depth that makes you curious. So, she has both qualities, which is quite rare for an actor.
DEADLINE: What draws you to strong female characters, and how do you create them?
PARK: I never thought to myself that I should intentionally create strong female characters. Regardless of male or female, whoever it is, I just want to create characters with strong personalities, characters with their own voices who still have a quality of life to them where you feel like they are people who exist in our real world. A lot of people focus more on these strong female characters, but it’s not that I intentionally try to make them strong. I think perhaps it’s because strong female characters are relatively rare in narratives, and that’s why people are paying more attention to those characters.
My collaboration with Jeong Seo-kyeong might also be another reason. Working with her has made me pay more attention to female characters than before. But it is true that even before I met Jeong Seo-kyeong, I thought to myself that the last film of my Vengeance trilogy, Lady Vengeance, should feature a female lead. So, I think everything just influenced everything else—because I wanted my final film of the Vengeance trilogy to feature a female lead, I asked writer Jeong Seo-kyeong to join project. And also, because she joined the project, from then onwards, I started to pay more attention and affection to these female characters.
DEADLINE: What about the setting?
PARK: Of all my films, this film does feature the most natural environment. And although this device is gone from the film now, until the very last stage of editing, we actually divided the story into two chapters. Chapter One was titled ‘Mountain’ and Chapter Two was titled ‘The Ocean’—that’s how important these two environments are, the mountain and the ocean. The stories are quite segregated depending on which environments they happen in, and the personalities are starkly different as well. In the film, the two characters quote a line from Confucius, where they say that kind people like the mountains and wise people like the ocean, and they bond over their affinity for the ocean and their dislike for the mountain. And so, this is a moment where they realize that they share this trait.
DEADLINE: Why did you take them out?
PARK: Honestly, there’s no special creative reason behind that. It’s just that the film is so long—it’s two hours and 18 minutes, the entire running time. And so, the audience would sit through the [first chapter], that’s almost the length of a usual feature film, and then the ‘Chapter Two: Ocean’ subtitle would come up. And so, I thought that might to make the audience feel fear and that, “Oh my God, we have to sit through another film…”
DEADLINE: All of your films have a very distinct look and a mood. How do you create that?
PARK: I don’t really know the answer to that. It just happens. It’s not like I set the mood or concept beforehand and tell the staff and crew that this is what we’re going to do. That’s never the case. It’s just continuing conversations during pre-production, all work together to make this, to actualize my idea. I don’t offer a lot of references for the actors and crew. They’re almost non-existent, except for a few exceptions. I remember for Thirst, I told Kim Ok-bin, our female lead, to watch Isabelle Adjani in Possession. That’s a something I remember, but it’s very rare where I just give them a reference film.
Another thing is I always insist that my next film is different from my previous film. If someone comes up with an idea, I might say, “Oh, but that’s what we did in Oldboy. We shouldn’t do that.” So, my strategy is avoiding things that remind you of references, including my own films and great films made by amazing directors in the history of cinema. So, I think you can say that my distinct mood is created by me trying to avoid things that remind people of other works.
DEADLINE: Was the film affected at all by the pandemic?
PARK: There were influences, but they were pretty minimal and not significant. There was a crew member who came in contact with a Covid patient, so our shoot was stopped for a day or maybe half an afternoon. That happened a couple of times, but we weren’t really influenced by the pandemic. In Korea, it’s customary to visit the set of a close filmmaker. If you’re friends, you go hang out on set and after the shoot you grab a drink together. It’s very customary, but because of the pandemic we couldn’t have any of that because guests were not really welcome. So close friends of mine in the industry, like Song Kang-ho and Bong Joon Ho, they weren’t able to visit me on set, which made things boring.
DEADLINE: Speaking of Director Bong, how has his Oscar success affected the Korean film industry?
PARK: It had a huge influence in the Korean industry. It gave Korean filmmakers a lot of confidence, and it also helped the audience pay more attention to Korean cinema, so it had huge consequences for the industry. And so, everyone was very excited that this would really bring up the numbers of Korean film audiences, and it would create a boom. But then the pandemic hit, and everything just fell apart. On top of that, it was as if everything was planned out: Squid Game was a massive hit, and so it made audiences—I think—watch content at home more. So that was another influence.
DEADLINE: One last question: what’s next?
PARK: I will be the show runner for The Sympathizer. It’s an HBO seven-episode series about Vietnamese-Americans in the mid-’70s, based on a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I’m participating in the writing of all episodes and directing part of the series. The novel is already out there, so the plot is available for anyone to read, but [this version] takes a lot of interest in the clash and also harmony of Eastern values and Western values. It also deals with the 1970s. Most of the story takes place in LA, but it also features Saigon, Vietnam, as a key location. And it deals with the ideological problems of that time period, the excess of ideology of the cold war era and how that excess really destroys the individual. It’s an exploration on those ideas, which is a topic that’s very familiar to a Korean like me.