The director delves into his new film in which a detective investigating a man’s death catches feelings for the dead man’s mysterious wife
Park Chan-wook’s sumptuous new melodrama has its own version of two dogs eating the same string of spaghetti in The Lady and the Tramp. In Decision to Leave, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), a detective, and Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a woman accused of murdering her husband, are in an interrogation room, examining a smartphone screen. Seo-rae raises the mobile with her left hand while zooming in on an image with two fingers on her right hand; to help her out, Hae-joon grabs the other side of the phone, his hand a few centimetres from hers. With their flesh connecting via plastic, their fingertips edge towards each other, until Seo-rae abruptly swivels away on her chair. Married men aren’t supposed to touch other women’s personal devices.
In Corinthia Hotel, during the London Film Festival, Park struggles to understand how Decision to Leave reminds me of The Lady and the Tramp, until I act out Seo-rae’s hand movements, and he responds with an “aha” – he’s been waiting since Cannes for a journalist to mention this sequence. “The film is a love story,” the 59-year-old South Korean filmmaker remarks through an interpreter. “But there’s no line that says ‘I love you’. There’s no sex. There’s one kiss, but it’s almost like saying goodbye.
“Within this context, any accidental touching – or sharing of a phone – can create huge ripples of emotions…. They’re in an interrogation room for a murder case. On the other side of the mirror, other detectives are observing; a camcorder is videotaping everything. There’s a build-up of tension. It’s not a bottle of wine these two are sharing, but it’s a cell phone that contains photos of evidence.”
While Park’s 11th feature is technically a murder mystery with copious blood and smashed skulls, the hammer-horror of Oldboy has been placed aside. Instead, it’s a mature meditation on love, loss, and memory in the internet age. Hae-joon is an insomniac who obsesses over Seo-rae, a widow whom he believes shoved her husband off a cliff; as she’s a Chinese woman in Busan with little grasp over the Korean language, the pair find alternate methods of expressing their sizzling chemistry. For instance, tossing a phone into the ocean as far as possible.
When I suggest that Decision to Leave, which he co-wrote with Seo-kyeong Jeong, is unusually romantic for Park, he contests that Thirst and Oldboy were “less romantic but more romanticism”. He senses I need an explanation for Oldboy. “In Thirst, the protagonist kills a girl, and makes her a vampire because he wants her back. In Oldboy, he continues loving his daughter when he has to erase the memory by hypnosis. Their father/daughter relationship goes beyond the rules of society. These two films are examples of pure romanticism that go beyond normal morality.”
Park has, after all, often broken from convention. With the “Vengeance trilogy”, he tested what audiences could stomach (or, with the octopus-eating in Oldboy, what the actors could stomach); with The Handmaiden, it was switching the novel’s Victorian Britain setting to Korea. In 2011, he directed Night Fishing, the first high-profile film to be shot entirely on an iPhone, and with Decision to Leave he’s discovered new ways to integrate technology. Along with utilising a corpse’s Apple Watch, the police procedural introduces a cinematic framing device for texting: the shots are from the POV of the phone battery, with the screen’s backward text overlaid on the screen.
“That POV shot of the phone, looking at Hae-joon’s face, is me combining the realism of the contemporary world, and the romanticism of a love story. When you send a text message, your physical eye looks at the phone, but your heart looks towards the recipient, who is Seo-rae. So the reverse shot should be from (the recipient) Seo-rae’s point of view, which means the phone.”
Park is similarly analytical when it comes to the frequent frames within frames, often via iPhone screens, CCTV footage, and mirrors so rectangular they resemble mobile devices. “It’s our modern take on the mise-en-scène of film noirs from the 40s and 50s.” Using hand gestures, he refers to a scene in which a mirror is placed in the background. “The camera – meaning the audience – can see one side of their face, but the camera also sees the other side of their face through the mirror’s reflection. By playing with the focus, it becomes a game: who is telling the truth, and at what point?”
In the interrogation room, sometimes the camera picks up Seo-rae’s head in the video monitor, while Hae-joon, through a trick of the cinematography, seems to look the opposite direction – even though, in reality, they’re staring at each other. “The precise composition heightens the feeling of Seo-rae being imprisoned.” In a later interrogation sequence, the monitor is divided into two parts. “When Hae-joon stands up, his torso covers Seo-rae’s face, but she’s about to say something important. Our heart is aching because she’s not fully represented in that scene.”
Decision to Leave, then, requires multiple viewings, with Park similarly specific when it comes to the performances. As Tang Wei learned Korean for the role, she asked him to act out her dialogue. “I’m not female and I’m not an actor, but I knew all the nuances,” Park explains. “I recorded all the lines, and she listened to it repeatedly. But for my next project, Robert Downey Jr. speaks very good English, and I don’t. So that won’t be happening again.”
In November, Park will start shooting The Sympathizer, an HBO/A24 miniseries starring Downey Jr., adapted from a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Beyond that, possible projects include a remake of Costa-Gavras’s The Ax, and Brigands of Rattlecreek, a gory western based on an infamous spec-script by S. Craig Zahler that’s been online since 2006. “I’ve rewritten Zahler’s draft. But every time I rewrite it, it goes further and further away from Zahler’s version. I’ve been working on it for years, and I haven’t given up on it.”
Before my own decision to leave, I propose a theory to Park that the camera in the second half emulates a smartphone’s interface. The frame often smoothly shifts from side to side as if an invisible thumb is providing the viewer an alternate view; it will zoom in to scrutinise a suspect’s face, or zoom out to contextualise a crime scene. After the time jump, is the mise-en-scène a romantic twist on swiping left and right?
“I’m going to have to say no,” Park says, laughing. However, he reveals I’ve stumbled across a secret challenge he and his cinematographer, Kim Ji-yong, set for themselves. “In part one, when it’s absolutely needed, we move the camera, but if not, we keep it fixed,” Park explains. “The fixed camera, like in old, classic films, makes you feel frustrated because the characters are also dominated by the rules. Part one can be a standalone film in itself. A detective meets this femme fatale, and is used by her, but he loves her, and, in the end, she’s free.
“In part two, Seo-rae turns out to be not a classic femme fatale, but she’s the one who knows love, and is quite a free-spirited person who’s not afraid to go against social norms and morality. That’s when the film noir starts to disappear – we go beyond that genre, and meet the real romantic film. That’s when I allow my film to roam free.”
Decision to Leave will be in UK & Irish cinemas on Friday, October 21. Dazed will host a preview screening of Decision To Leave at London’s Charlotte Street Hotel on Thursday, October 20, as part of its ongoing partnership with MUBI. Tickets are available here for £6 (also including drinks and a goodie bag). As always, Dazed Club members will be able to get them half-price (find out more about Dazed Club here).