You would never guess that for a detective mystery film directed by the man who gave us Oldboy, Thirst, and The Handmaiden, Decision to Leave would end up as one of the most restrained, romantic films of the year.
In the film, detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) investigates a man’s mysterious death. Could be a suicide, could be an accident, could be a murder. The prime suspect is the victim’s wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei). But once she is brought in and the interrogations start, nothing is what it seems. Together, they go down a winding, seemingly endless path, full of entangled passion, care, and affection.
With a familiar genre but unfamiliar direction, director Park Chan-wook offers a far more nuanced, subdued approach to crime with his newest film that might surprise some of his most loyal moviegoers, but it’s all for the better. The result is a beautiful portrait of longing, heartache, and words unsaid. Appropriately enough, Park uses language itself to communicate those ideas to the audience.
The key to the film lies all in the writing and the two leads, something that I was eager to talk to Park about. In the interview below, we talked about his creative process when developing the film, along with the subtleties in language expressed through Seo-rae’s character.
Kevin L. Lee: Mr. Park Chan-wook, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s really surreal and it’s an honor. Congratulations on the film.
Park Chan-wook: Thank you.
KL: It is beautiful, beautiful work.
PC: Thank you very much.
KL: I want to start by asking about the development process. When you were developing the film, did you have a goal in mind? What did you want to do differently with this project going forward, from the very beginning?
PC: Well, first of all, I wanted to tell a love story that is quite mature. And what I meant by that is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a love story that involves adults. It’s really about these people who can restrain themselves about their true emotions or who can hide their true feelings towards each other because of the circumstances around them, instead of really just going for it and expressing whatever that’s inside of you directly and exploding and running with it. So that was the type of love story I wanted to tell with this project.
KL: That’s really interesting because I feel like with your past films, they tend to be violent and extreme. It was very interesting to see the violence toned down a bit or to use a genre that is known for being violent, but to tell a love story instead.
PC: Yes, it’s about hiding feelings towards each other, but the audience should be able to see what is going on. And that will be something the audience will find fun, to follow the story. So basically it’s obvious for the audience, but it’s not so obvious between the two characters. And I thought the amusement will lie in that imbalance, in that discrepancy.
In order for the audience to do that, to catch the emotions underneath what is seen on the surface, then I had to make sure that the audience would be able to really look into the small details of the facial expressions and the nuances and everything. And in order to do that, I had to make sure that everything around them should be subdued. So no violence, no nudity, so that these small details can come alive.
KL: One of the many beautiful things I found with your film is language, because in the film she [Seo-rae] switches between using Korean and using Chinese. I’d like to know the inspiration behind that idea. What was the process like?
PC: Did you understand the Chinese lines?
KL: Yes, I did. It was actually quite fun because there were certain moments where her Chinese line meant a lot more to me than reading the English translation of the Korean line.
PC: Ahh, I see.
So with Seo-rae, she is living in a foreign country alone and that was a very important premise that we set up for this characterization. She being forced to speak in a foreign language was a very important device for me to form her character.
And the way she speaks Korean is quite unique. The pronunciation is not perfect, but still… we can understand, but it’s not perfect. The vocabulary or those usages are sometimes very… they come across as very elegant and classical because it’s old-fashioned. And sometimes some words are put in a context that are not usually used in Korean colloquial usages, so that sometimes brings about some laughter, but also in some of the examples… a Korean audience would have second thoughts about those usages because we see how that word could be used in the context too. And it gives a very different nuance to it and it sounds different, but it’s quite nice.
And you have this whole follow-up question about our mother tongue, how it can be used. And you can also tell in Seo-rae… how much effort she must have put in to learn the foreign language and trying to speak it as accurately as possible. And it also shows her thoughts, how she forms her thoughts in Korean language. And it’s a very honest thought. She’s very honest about her thoughts and emotions and it gives an air of dignity to her Korean too.
However, as a foreigner speaking a foreign language in a foreign country, you are always nervous when you start speaking. You’re a little bit nervous. You’re already a little bit tense and you keep on self censoring. “Is this correct? Is this correct?”
But then there’s a point where she starts speaking Chinese and that’s her mother tongue. So her attitude changes and the Korean audience… now we don’t understand what she’s saying. And perhaps some of the audience may have laughed at her strange Korean, but now they’re in a different position. Now the position has been subverted. Now the audiences have to rely on whatever that’s coming next. We don’t know what she’s saying, but it just sounds so elegant and so full of confidence and affirmed that we want to know what she’s saying and we become really curious. So there’s this whole game of power between the audience and Seo-rae’s character because of the change of the language.
After watching the film, I was happy to hear some of the Korean audience saying that, “We didn’t understand the Chinese by itself, but this was actually the first time that I really felt the Chinese language was so elegant and so beautiful.” And I was happy to hear that.
KL: It put me in a really unique position because I was able to react to her first and then see how he [Hae-jun] reacts! So it was really interesting for me!
KL: I think my favorite moment in the film is a moment where they take a break from the interrogation and they eat together, and it’s so delicate and intimate.
KL: And I really appreciate that you have the eye to notice these things and to appreciate these things. So my question is, was there a detail like that on set when you’re working with your actors and crew that you really appreciated?
PC: You mean while shooting the film, right?
KL: Yes, while you’re on set.
PC: I storyboard my film from the very beginning until the end. So a whole film is storyboarded before we start shooting, because without that kind of detailed storyboarding, what happens is that the director will be… your mind is somewhere else.
While shooting one scene, you’re thinking about what’s coming next. So, “Where am I going to set up the camera? Am I going to move it? Fix it? And how is the blocking going to be with the actors and everything?”
So if I don’t have everything all set out and planned, that means I won’t be able to observe the scene or have a conversation with the cast and crew. So I take time. I put a lot of time into the pre-production phase so that I can have the precious time on the set and actually engage in conversation with the cast and really observe those moments that you’re talking about.
KL: That’s amazing. Mr. Park Chan-wook, thank you so much for your time today.
PC: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Decision to Leave is South Korea’s official submission for the International Feature Film Oscar for the 95th Academy Awards. MUBI will release the film in the U.S. on October 14.