Over the years, Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook, 59, has maintained his strength but become more elegant. He began that shift in The Handmaiden (2016), and now he deepens it in Decision to Leave, a film noir brimming with aesthetic ambition, hypnotic narration and attractive characters, especially the two main ones, who adhere to Hollywood’s classic canons: a detective who is led to make the wrong decisions by love and a foreign femme fatale. Of course, nothing is what it seems in Decision to Leave. At the most recent Cannes Film Festival, where this interview was conducted, Park won the best director award.
The creator of the Vengeance diptych (2002 and 2005) and director who polished Oldboy’s skull-crushing beauty (2003), has moved between gems filmed in his native country – I Am a Cyborg but That’s OK, Thirst and the documentary Bitter Sweet Seoul – and works in English – Stoker and the television adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl. But his best stories always involve crime and sex. When Park started on his latest script, he was thinking more about shooting a love story, a genre that influenced his film The Handmaiden. “The noir thing came later, although there is not as much violence and sex as in my other films, or at least not the amount that many people say I show on screen. I’m not sure about that; anyway, I wanted to tell a story about fou [crazy] love.”
Sitting with a cup of tea in his hand and a translator at his side (the filmmaker understands English, but he does not feel comfortable speaking it), only Park’s eyes and his famous bangs are visible behind a huge mask that covers his face as protection from Covid. His eyes sparkle when he hears the first question. It is not about Decision to Leave’s most discussed references – Alfred Hitchcock and the classic cinema of the Warner Brothers studio, which specialized in crime movies for decades – but rather the women in some of Spanish director Luis Buñuel’s classic films: “I appreciate that question,” he says. “I deeply admire Buñuel and the women in his most enigmatic films, and in this thriller, it shows. I regret not seeing all of his films.”
The director delves into the parallels. “Buñuel’s leading ladies often set the narrative rhythm of his films, as in That Obscure Object of Desire. The film I like the most is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Then I would say Belle de jour and The Exterminating Angel.” Park’s passion for the Spanish filmmaker’s more playful and cryptic filmography is clear. “Of course, now I see Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock on screen, but those weren’t my initial impulses,” he reflects. “Before [we] move on to another question, I want to add two details. I wanted to be an art critic and I decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Vertigo and enjoying the films of Kim Ki-young, who was my teacher, the filmmaker who most influenced me. Do you know what they called him? The Korean Buñuel. And do you know who his best characters were? The femmes fatales. The circle closes.”
The filmmaker also found inspiration for his latest movie in the lyrics of a ballad. “I started the trip thinking about a phrase in a song and the emotion in which the melody immersed you,” he says. “The funny thing is that I knew the version as sung by a male voice, and the original, I discovered later, was performed by a female singer. Her tone prompted me to feel this love story’s heartbeat. In pre-production, I made another happy discovery: the locations added even more detail to Decision to Leave’s mood, its tone.” Park explains that the nuances of his latest work were created over the different stages of the film’s production. “You can call it experience, or clarity of purpose, although over the years I have been concentrating increasingly more on the story during [the] shooting [phase]. The visual style is already thrown in from the storyboard. If the big decisions are made in the process of writing the script, the details become concrete on the storyboard.”
Park says that the idea of having the main character be a Chinese woman in South Korea was connected “with the concept of the femme fatale, with that feeling of being a foreigner in a man’s world that they [femmes fatales] all leave in their films.” He adds that “they are solitary characters, survivors. Many times, the lack of emotional connection comes from living in a country that is not their own.” Why include a woman like that in his films? “Because of the mood that song inspired in me, and the concept of a love story also added to [my] interest in shooting a crime film. It was instantaneous. Just like the two stages into which the film is divided: I got together with my co-writer, the writer Chung Seo-kyung, who encouraged me to shoot in Korea again, and we immediately understood that the second part turned the first part upside down. Complexity won out.”
The director is now back in Los Angeles, working on a television production, A24′s The Sympathizer for HBO, starring Robert Downey Jr. Park has always enjoyed such work “both because of the young people and because of peers [from my] generation.” At Cannes, he acknowledged that he was unsure whether it was “worth it to direct an entire series by myself again” and lamented the current frenetic creative pace of Korean filmmakers. “We used to pass scripts around, but today we don’t even have time; plus, we live in different countries. I liked the relationship we had among artists with very different interests.”
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