Park Chan-wook, the masterful filmmaker behind the dark delights of The Handmaiden, Oldboy, and Thirst, wields beauty and pain with a cutthroat precision. Carve deeper into these films' genre-redefining twists, however, and one realizes that every single one of Director Park's works—from erotic psychological thrillers, violence-drenched neo-noirs, to supernatural horrors—bleed from the same romantic heart. The South Korean director has always believed that the most powerful way an artist can explore being human is by examining love: how we’re drawn into its alluring embrace, and crucially, just what we’re capable of in its name.
His latest, Decision to Leave, is perhaps one of his greatest love stories. Garnering him the prize for Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film introduces itself as a police procedural drama. As a murder investigation beckons mild-mannered detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) to watch his prime suspect Seo-rae (Tang-wei) closer and closer, he begins to fall for her enigmatic ways. But like all of Director Park’s films, Decision to Leave morphs like a trick of the light. The direction of the film’s fixation eventually inverts, and with the symmetry of a Rorschach inkblot, it reorients itself around the suspect gazing right back at her detective.
On the night of Decision to Leave’s U.K. premiere at the London Film Festival, Director Park spoke to me about the film’s lush interplay of mystery and romance, how it communicates desire through detail and gesture, and the stray cat that pays him visits at home. A warning: spoilers for Decision to Leave lie ahead.
The crimes in Decision to Leave take secondary importance to the deepening romantic obsession between Hae-joon and Seo-rae. Is there something intimate about a detective making one person their sole focus?
To me, what was most important with this film was that the investigative story and the romance were inseparable. For example, once the first case has been concluded as a suicide and they start to build their romantic relationship, there's a chance for Hae-joon to touch Seo-rae’s hand. He finds calluses on her palms, and he thinks that’s a bit strange. He later hears from the old lady that Seo-rae's hands used to be very soft, and that’s when his suspicion re-emerges. But if they were not romantically involved, Hae-joon would never have touched Seo-rae’s hands, and Seo-rae wouldn’t have asked Hae-joon to take care of the old lady.
During Part One, the police drama is more pronounced than the romantic side of the film. The mystery is whether this death is suicide or homicide, and the female protagonist is being observed through the male protagonist’s eyes. But in Part Two, the film noir genre is addressed from a meta perspective. Seo-rae is no longer defined as a femme fatale, because she is no longer being observed. Now, Hae-joon is being observed by Seo-rae, and when her second husband dies, there’s no question that it’s a homicide. Instead, the question is: why is she here, and why did she commit this murder? Part Two leans more towards how the mystery itself is related to the romance. Yet, the biggest mystery of the film as a whole is when Seo-rae tells Hae-joon on the phone, "you said you love me", and Hae-joon asks back, "when did I say I love you?" Later, when Hae-joon listens to the voice recordings, he realizes that when he told Seo-rae to throw the phone in the sea, releasing her even though he knew that she was the murderer, that was a thousand times stronger than verbally saying, “I love you.” He finally realizes that Seo-rae knew that. So the resolution of the mystery of his actions, the core mystery of the entire film, is what makes it a romance rather than a police procedural.
Decision to Leave is a sweepingly romantic film, where the smallest of actions carry so much desire. Your previous films contain more overt eroticism, but here, intimacy is embedded in quite delicate gestures.
Our two characters are the type of people who cannot be honest about their feelings. So, the audience has to catch slight changes in their facial expressions, or small actions. This style, and these restrained emotions, was also suitable for me to pursue because I wanted to make a very classical and elegant film. One example is the scene where they meet at the snowy mountain. Right before Seo-rae kisses Hae-joon, she takes things out of his pockets, and unlike his wife, she knows where things are at once. She puts his lip balm on her lips, and almost puts it on his lips, too. But she kisses him instead, and whatever is on her mouth is enough to share. This is something that can be recognized by watching this film for the second or third time, but these details are something that make film a medium of art – and that's why it's so precious to me.
Your characters—maybe especially the men—are often tortured souls driven by some kind of pathology. Hae-joon is an insomniac, and one reason he's so magnetized by Seo-rae is because her presence helps him fall asleep. What draws you to writing characters who have some kind of affliction of the body or heart?
I don't think I give afflictions only to my male characters. For example, Hideko in The Handmaiden has her share of afflictions, and Lady Vengeance, Geum-ja-ssi, does too. So, it doesn't matter which gender. What I want to do is put my characters in very hard situations and give them flaws, and see them go through almost transformative pain. Then, we observe how all these characters embrace their pain and move on.
You've mentioned how the archetype of the femme fatale is insufficient to describe Seo-rae. I actually think the closest reference for her is the cat in the film—like the cat, Seo-rae also communicates affection by bringing corpses to a loved one’s door.
Your mention of the cat is quite interesting, because it's something that I really experienced. At home, there’s this stray cat we feed. He would sleep and eat at my house, and at dawn, he would leave to spend a whole day out, and then come back to eat and sleep. At one point, he started giving us gifts: all kinds of dead animals. [Laughs.] Dead birds, dead rats, and even rabbits. He would put them right where we gave him food, and he would stay and observe whether we appreciated his gifts. So perhaps my experience with the cat was somehow connected to Seo-rae's story. And the bucket that she uses in the playground to bury the crow that the cat brought, is the very bucket that she later uses to commit suicide. So, that’s one point where we get to take a glimpse into the future of Seo-rae.
Hae-joon says for some people, grief can be overwhelming, like a crashing wave; but for others, it spreads slowly, like ink in water. But this comment seems to describe his love for Seo-rae even more so than grief. Do you see love as traversing this spectrum of extremes?
I can’t really comment on the definition of love in general. What I can say is that there's a certain love experienced by these two particular people. It doesn't matter how I define love, because that's what my characters consider love is for them. But I believe there are many different types of love. For example, some people say when Hae-joon first encounters Seo-rae next to the corpse, right before he says, “I’d like to know the pattern,” that’s the moment when he completely falls in love with her. I totally understand why they could see it that way. But Hae-joon, being dominated by his own very strict moral compass, does not recognize his true feelings. He doesn't give in to the fact that he actually loves his suspect. And that's why he ends up making mistakes and misjudgments. Seo-rae is the one who knows herself, and who accurately assesses Hae-joon's character. And that's why she defines her own destiny. Here, I don't want to say who made a better decision. It’s just the path my characters took—and that’s all.