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Park Chan-wook: ‘I wanted to make a film that's classical and elegant’

Decision To Leave is a stunning chess game of suppressed longings. Director Park Chan-wook spoke to us about pulp literature, Hitchcock and the power of an old song

Tang Wei in 'Decision To Leave'

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In November, I unexpectedly got a chance to see Park Chan-wook’s Thirst on the big screen. It was a free screening; there must have been around 100-150 people watching. By the end, that number had dwindled. My friend and I, neither of us strangers to Park, found ourselves wincing through it. A few weeks earlier, I had seen Decision To Leave for the first time. That felt like the work of a master, whereas Thirst—a vampire story shot through with body horror and perversity—is the fever dream of a talented provocateur.

There has been a wit and smoothness to Park’s recent films that’s difficult to describe in any other terms but Hitchcockian. But unlike Hitchcock, Park is a romantic—and he has allowed that to surface more freely, giving his last few works an emotional charge that wasn’t there in Oldboy and the other provocations that he built his reputation on. In The Little Drummer Girl, a limited series adapted from John le Carré’s novel, a depth of feeling arises from the strange relationship between Charlie and her handler, Gadi. And in Decision To Leave, Park achieves something startlingly resonant, its lonely lovers turning a murder investigation into a chess game of suppressed longings.

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In October, I spoke to Park over Zoom, with the help of an interpreter, about a film that's lost and found in translation from Korean to Chinese and back. I started by asking why his detective had Martin Beck books in his apartment. “He’s a regular person,” Park said about the Swedish investigator. “And he has regular problems. When he’s investigating a case, he’s influenced by it. He has vulnerabilities and that makes him more relatable and more human.” He could have been talking about Jang Hae-jun, soft-spoken insomniac, occasional chainmail-wearer, and the detective looking into the death of Ki Do Soo, a Korean immigration officer who fell from a cliff.

Ki Do Soo’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a recent emigrant from China, soon becomes a suspect. And almost immediately, Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) becomes obsessed with her, and she with him. An interrogation becomes a date (a confused cop asks, “Are we allowed to order the expensive sushi?”), a spot of spying the first bit of intimacy, as Hae-jun imagines himself in her apartment, holding out a bowl for her un-ashed cigarette. It’s a chaste film—at least in terms of what is shown onscreen—but with a sophisticated, teasing erotic tension. In his apartment, Seo-rae notices crime scene photographs from unsolved cases pinned up, including her own. She starts taking them down but allows him to save some of hers. She then helps the insomniac detective sleep by syncing their breathing. 

The scene at the Buddha temple is the masterful centrepoint of the film, a supremely romantic interlude which also supplies half a dozen details that find their payoff in the second half. She goes through his coat pockets. He rubs lotion on to her rough hands. They listen to a recording, one earpod each, from when he was spying on her; with an indefinable expression on her face, she corrects or confirms his assumptions. She calls him “my detective”. Jo Yeong-wook supplies an aching theme—his lush scores were always waiting for Park’s films to age into them.

Had the first half been the entirety of the film, Decision To Leave would still have been wonderful. But something happens midway—I won’t hint at what it is—that allows the film to start again. When it resumes, the ache is intensified. Park denies any influence of Vertigo—a film he’s a big fan of—on Decision To Leave’s two-part structure (he did say that Shadow Of A Doubt’s influence on Wentworth Miller’s script for Stoker was one of the things that attracted him to make the film). “If you see any Hitchcockian element in my film, it’s because it’s always in me,” he said. “His work was my textbook. If you are trying to make a thriller, or create suspense, who would be free from the influence of Hitchcock?”

Though an original screenplay instead of an adaptation like his last few films, Decision To Leave has a literary quality not unlike that of a 1940s hard-boiled novel. “You saw that correctly,” Park said when I mentioned this to him. “People tend to see (Dashiell) Hammett’s and (Raymond) Chandler’s work as the same as the film noir adaptations. But I like the original literary work that influenced those films more. It has such a great insight into the human psyche, and there’s such intricate plotting and mood-making.” He was conscious of wanting to take the genre into unexpected emotional territory. “In the second half, I wanted to go beyond the genre conventions of film noir and make a whole different type of film.”

Throughout the film, technology is ubiquitous. It incriminates: Hae-jun makes a remarkable deduction from Seo-rae’s daily steps. It shifts shape: A car morphs into a cellphone, a gasp-inducing transition (a search party seen through trees replacing the film's title produced a similar audible reaction in the crowd I saw the film a second time with). It becomes a bridge, the two lovers using a translation app when Seo-rae’s Korean falters.

Park was wary when phones started appearing in his script. “I thought, this is too much, I want to make a film that’s classical and elegant,” he said. He needn’t have worried. It is, after all, a mobile phone that gives rise to the film’s best line: “Throw it into a deeper ocean.”

Much of the film’s charge comes via a remarkable performance from Tang Wei. Much of the film is Hae-jun just trying to interpret her expressions—and we have to do the same. It’s a role tailor-made for Tang Wei, who played the unreadable mystery women in Lust, Caution and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. She was in Park’s thoughts from the beginning, as was an old song: Jung Hoon-hee’s ‘Mist’, which plays several times. “I started out wanting to make a police procedural,” Park said. “It was only after listening to the song that I wanted to combine the police drama with romance.” The lyrics are Decision To Leave in precis: Your shadow and king memories/Are my only company/I hopelessly wander around/Back into those old days. Hear the 1972 version with the wailing strings, it will conjure up the film even before you watch it.

Decision To Leave is streaming on MUBI.

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