‘Decision To Leave’ Director Park Chan-Wook Explains How Less Is Much More When It Comes To Creating Tension: “Thats The Purest Form Of Cinema”

Bong Joon-ho may be the national hero for bringing home the Oscar for Parasite, but it was Park Chan-wook who first blazed the trail for Korean cinema. After two false starts, his international career began in earnest in 2000 with Berlinale hit Joint Security Area (J.S.A), a military thriller set in the no-man’s land between North and South Korea. In the years since, Director Park has been a quicksilver talent, never repeating himself and bringing savagely original twists to genres as diverse as the vampire movie (Thirst), the erotic thriller (Handmaiden) and manga (Oldboy). His latest, Decision to Leave, is no exception, a perversely modern and yet classically Hitchcockian whodunnit, in which Park Hae-il’s obsessive detective Hae-joon falls hard for his suspect (Tang Wei).

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DEADLINE: What were your thoughts going into Cannes with Decision To Leave?

PARK CHAN-WOOK: I guess I don’t really have a concept of such a macroscopic view of my career. I don’t think I ever had that comprehensive look back at my career. It’s always more of a case by case and day by day assignment, getting it day by day. But I do remember worrying about how this film has less violence and portrayals of sex. So I was a bit concerned about whether the audience would be disappointed by that.

DEADLINE: But it looks like you hit a nerve. Given the success of Glass Onion, people seem to have been looking to invest in those kinds of mystery stories this last year.

PARK: I do believe that that kind of story that you’ve mentioned is the joy of the oldest kind of genre film that’s been around. So many films have been made with such kind of mystery. So what’s really important is to express that in a new format, and, personally for me, how to combine that with a story of love.

DEADLINE: The film has a very dreamlike quality. Are you inviting people to share your dream, so to speak?

PARK: I’ve previously said that I wasn’t conscious of the movie Vertigo when I was making Decision to Leave, but I did also mention that it did have some subconscious influences on the making of this film. And when I say influences, I don’t necessarily mean the similarities between the plot or the characteristics of the plot. What I meant is what you mentioned: this daydream like quality of the film. That was the influence, subconscious influence of Vertigo on the film. I think this is especially the case in part two of the film, which takes place in Ipoh because of the mist in the city. And from beginning to the end, what I really intended was to make this a dreamlike world, where you feel lost and you don’t know which way to go and everything is unclear. That kind of psychological state, where you’re still searching for something, you’re still searching for clarity. That was the kind of dreamlike state that I intended to create here.

DEADLINE: I couldn’t help thinking also that you were drawing parallels between a detective and a director, in the sense that the detective is looking for the perfect mystery in the same way that a director is looking for the perfect story.

PARK: Yes. A director has to create the perfect mystery and also to solve the mystery, whereas a detective is only tasked with the task of solving that mystery. A director’s job is to put the puzzle pieces together, but also to create those puzzle pieces themselves. That’s it.

DEADLINE: Do you see yourself in the detective? Do you ever lose sleep about what it is that you do and what you might be looking for?

PARK: In this case, as I’ve emphasized multiple times, it’s this story about this unclear world and you’re trying to clearly see that blurry silhouette and that effort of trying to clearly see that blurry world. I think that is connected onto the job that I do. I think this is the attitude that a creator or an artist should have. Think about [the detective] Hae-joon with his eye drops: he’s putting them in his eyes and blinking, and trying to see objects around him more clearly. In this world where the meaning of it all is so unclear, this is the attitude that the artist should view our world with. So even though the effort of our character Hae-joon fails, and he is ultimately sucked into this curtain of mist and darkness and he fails to clearly see the world in the end, I do believe it’s the effort that matters most.

DEADLINE: Are you an artist that’s influenced by dreams? Your films to me seem to have become more dreamlike, from Thirst onwards.

PARK: Yes. As you’ve mentioned, some of my films, such as Oldboy, Lady Vengeance, I’m a Cyborg…, Thirst, Handmaiden and Stoker, these films pursued this dreamlike quality that you’ve mentioned, and also some of these ideas within these films are direct influences from my own dreams as well.

DEADLINE: How do your dreams influence your work? Is it a visual influence or a narrative influence?

PARK: If I am to find some examples from my film, for instance, in I’m a Cyborg…, in that scene where there’s the rubber band, you pull it and you release it, and the grandmother flies away and disappears. Or in the example of the movie Thirst, the image of a whale in an ocean full of blood releasing bloody water out of its nozzle. Some of those are influences from my dreams. So, those are some examples of visuals. And story-wise, for example, I do feel like it’s the work of the subconscious, you may say. But also when you’re awake in the day, you’re thinking about these story elements all day. So in that state of being half-awake and half asleep, that’s when the story ideas come up in your dreams. But I can’t think of a specific example.

DEADLINE: When you were starting out, how was the film industry in Korea?

PARK: When I did J.S.A., That’s when the boom of the Korean film industry began, and we were allowed to propose more bold ideas for movies. For instance, if you think about J.S.A., it actually had the potential to go against government laws. And if the government wanted to sue the film, they could definitely go ahead and do that. So if I were to put it more dramatically, this was a movie that could send me to jail. But we were able to make that film because the industry had that power of commercial investment, and I was able to also cast the best stars of the time in that film. So if I were to put it simply, the industry had the commercial energy to make these films and the artistic courage to try something new.

DEADLINE: But then you found your style very quickly.

PARK: To some extent, I do believe it was inevitable because I did not graduate film school. And at the time in Korea, there was no cinematheque, there were no books on filmmaking, or overall a systematic education for anyone who wanted to make film, and there were no opportunities to watch a director’s entire filmography and study it either. And to clarify the term “books on filmmaking”, it wasn’t just on filmmaking itself, but anything on film, including film theory or film criticism — we did not have that at the time in Korea. So, I had this big thirst for classical films, but I could not read about the ideas or theories behind these films or watch them freely. So, I had to watch movies on these different paths that came up at the time. There wasn’t really a systematic thing that I was going for, I had to watch these movies in an order that was kind of all over the place.

In Korea at the time, the only movies that were released in theaters would be contemporary American or Korean films, and whenever I watched those movies, I wasn’t that greatly satisfied. So, I really wanted to make a movie that would satisfy me, a movie that I would want to watch. I’ve always had that thirst for something that could satisfy me in that way. That’s why whenever people who studied or traveled abroad would come home and tell me about the movies of Ingmar Bergman or Pasolini, I did not have the opportunity to watch them, so I would imagine what kind of movies these movies were. So, I want to call my style a self-studied kind of style. It’s not influenced by a particular director’s work or included in a particular school of work. It’s a style that kind of does whatever it wants to do.

DEADLINE: Oldboy was a huge film for you, but were you ever frustrated that, for a time, it kind of pigeonholed you as a violent horror director? Was it a curse as well as a blessing?

PARK: I actually continued to make those kinds of films even after Oldboy, so I don’t think it’s fair to call it the curse of Oldboy. I’ve just been making the things that I want to make.

DEADLINE: I just meant that people had a preconception of what kind of director you would be.

PARK: I haven’t been extra conscious of the expectations for me, and I’ve never made films to satisfy those expectations, so it’s never really bothered me.

DEADLINE: You’ve only made one film in America and it’s often forgotten. I wonder how you feel about Stoker now, because this is a film that is shaped by other people’s narrative, not yours. It’s framed by the typical narrative of an outsider who goes to Hollywood.

PARK: This was the first movie that I made that had a script that was written by somebody else. But even though I wasn’t credited, I actually made a lot of revisions on the script myself. So [it was] just like my other films where I wrote the script myself, like Oldboy or J.S.A. — these works are actually adapted from an original work. They’re adaptations. So you could kind of see it in a similar way, as an adaptation. For instance, Handmaiden was adapted from a novel, but I made that creative adaptation myself. So as much as it is a story by Sarah Waters, it is also my story, and that’s how I feel about Stoker. And while I was making that film, all the people involved with the making of that film were such brilliant people. So it was actually one of the happiest times that I spent making a film. And I’m equally highly satisfied with the final product. [As I did in Stoker], I always want to return to [making] a drama with a small number of people in an isolated, tight space and see the drama that unfolds there. Using a minimal setting to create maximum tension — I think that is the purest form of cinema.

DEADLINE: There’s also a great deal of humor in the film, which I think was not noticed at the time. I wonder if you think the humor in your films is sometimes overlooked.

PARK: That’s true, because in that film there’s a lot of that sarcastic kind of humor. And even people who love the film rarely mention the humor in it. So that actually really hurts my feelings. [Laughs] But the fact that our actors clearly understood what I was going for, and clearly expressed it the way I wanted it, [means] I’m very grateful for that, even to this day.

DEADLINE: Am I right to think that Handmaiden (2016) is your biggest and most ambitious project, to the extent that it could have gone horribly wrong?

PARK: That’s true, because, in the background of the story, there are very strong, clear elements to start off with: it takes place in the colonialist era, and a sympathizer of these Japanese imperialist ideas is a very important character within the story. So there were some dangerous elements in regards to releasing the film in Korea.

DEADLINE: But I’m also thinking in terms of your own [financial] involvement. It was a big-budget movie that could have perhaps bankrupted you if it had not worked.

PARK: That’s also true, but it’s really all interrelated, because even if the budget is really big, if it’s commercially safe to release, then you can make up for that budget. So you wouldn’t have that fear of using such a big budget. But, as I said, the concept and the story all had these dangerous elements in regards to releasing it in Korea. So that would’ve been the concern in regards to the film.

DEADLINE: Were you surprised it was such a success? To me it’s probably your wildest film.

PARK: I don’t really think there’s a director who makes a film thinking it’s not going to be a success. So, even though there were these dangerous elements, I had confidence that the story would connect with the audiences. The love story between our two protagonists is very endearing, and we also end on this very touching, happy ending. And the plot is entertaining. It’s filled with tension and it never bores you. And we also had the opportunity to offer this deep exploration of our villain as well. So all of these I felt like already gave the movie an entertainment value. So I wasn’t too surprised to see its commercial success.

DEADLINE: A few years ago you ventured into streaming with the late-’70s-set spy story The Little Drummer Girl? How has that worked out for you?

PARK: The author of The Little Drummer Girl, John Le Carré, has always been a hero to me, so I’ve always wanted to adapt the work of his. But I couldn’t quite find the right opportunity to do so. And that’s when I ran into the conception of this work. So even among all of the Le Carré fans, I think this is actually one of my favorite works and I appreciated the most out of all of his works. It almost felt like a story written for me. And to put it in a more extreme sense, it almost felt like a story that I wrote myself. That’s how much the story has all of these elements that I really like. But to say that it almost felt as if I wrote the work myself is actually quite a foolish thing to say, because all the works that he wrote over his lifetime influenced me and my world and my works, and that’s how I have developed my own taste.

The Little Drummer Girl is a work that I’m highly satisfied with. I wasn’t credited for the script, but I was still very heavily involved with it, to the point where it actually became impossible [for me] to tell what’s from the original story and the elements that I added in myself.

This was the first time that I worked on a television series, and even though the quality that we ended up with, both regarding the visual and the audio, is high enough to be worth seeing in a theater, it’s kind of sad to know that it won’t be seen in a theater. But on the bright side, we did not have to crop out the stories from the original work to fit into that feature-film timeframe, and on top of that we could have the opportunity to express the details of the supporting characters, both in the Mossad group and the terrorist group as well. All these supporting characters have the chance to be expressed in great detail. So those kind of upsides made me feel better about not having this shown in a theater.

Also, I had the opportunity to release a director’s cut, so all of these things that I’ve mentioned are on the basis of the director’s cut version of the series, [which] has all of my thoughts clearly expressed in these different details. This director’s cut was not available outside of Korea for a long time, but recently in Korea they released a Blu-ray box series of the director’s cut. It really comes with my highest level of confidence as a director because, I was involved with every little detail, even including the package design — I handpicked the illustrator for the package design as well.

DEADLINE: What are you working on now?

I’ve been working as the showrunner of the HBO series The Sympathizer. The history of Vietnam is something that Koreans can empathize with, because it’s very similar to the history of Korea: for instance, the element of the civil war within Vietnam between the south and the north. These are elements that I can empathize with as a Korean. So I’m very fortunate to have found a project that interests me like this. It tells the story of Vietnamese immigrants after the war settling in the US and then returning to Vietnam as well. On the outside it might seem like just a simple espionage work, but it has a lot more depth to it, and I do want to also label it as a humanistic drama piece.

DEADLINE: When will we see that?

PARK: Early 2024.

DEADLINE: And in the meantime, what are your hopes for 2023?

PARK: My hope is for the pandemic to die down more, to completely go away, so that theaters can be full of people just as they were before.

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