Decision to Leave Park Chan-wook

Filmmaker Park Chan-wook on exploring the dark side of desire in Decision to Leave

We interviewed one of the directors who put South Korean cinema on the map. “The Korean soil has matured, and we are reaping those fruits now.”

South Korean director Park Chan-wook delves into our darkest impulses with his latest film, Decision to Leave.

“Eroticism is something that makes humans human,” says Park Chan-wook. Eroticism, more than just normal desire, intertwines death and taboo with sex; nothing is more exciting than what is forbidden. While many filmmakers have shied away from the erotic imagination, with films like Stoker, The Handmaiden and Thirst, Park has only gravitated towards exposing our deepest and darkest desires on screen.

That impulse to covet the forbidden is central to Decision to Leave. Part detective thriller and part romance, the film centres on a bored detective, Hae-Joon (Park Hae-il), investigating the mysterious death of a man atop a mountain. He suspects the man’s wife, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a beguiling foreigner who draws him into her world.

“From the very beginning,” says Park, “me and my co-writer (Seo-kyeong Jeong) had the objective of making the process of investigation and the process of these two characters falling in love completely inseparable.”

People have pointed to elements of film noir and Hitchcock’s cinema as reference points, though Park has denied a conscious influence. The comparisons are not empty; like most noir, Decision to Leave features a femme fatale and convoluted mystery. The film features echoes of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, particularly its voyeurism, and Vertigo in terms of its treatment of obsession and its dizzying use of moving camera. 

Park points to a different cinematic reference, though: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Specifically, they drew on the film’s ambiance in the writing process. Brief Encounter centres on a dissatisfied housewife who has an emotional affair with a man she meets at a train station. Forced to keep their desires under wraps, the lovers live out their affair mainly in public spaces. The film is charged with erotic energy as the characters push the limits of polite society and expectations. Their romance is doomed, and the enormity of their love for each other is contained in the devastatingly small action of a tender shoulder squeeze. 

Park Chan-wook at Cannes 2022

Decision to Leave takes things further; the film features sex, both amorous and passionate, and dully routine. The fire that ignites between Hae-Joon and Seo-rae gives meaning to their lives and challenges the familiarity of expectations. “Eroticism makes our lives more energetic and revitalized. It gives pleasure,” explains Park. “But, at the same time, it has a dark impulse, too. When I deal with eroticism, I try to see both the positive and the dark sides.” 

Part of that dark nature within Decision to Leave is a more profound understanding that throwing yourself at the object of desire is implicitly self-destructive. A detective should not be sleeping with a suspect, and certainly not one accused of murdering her husband. He risks not only his comfortable home with his beautiful wife but also his career and even his life. 

But, as a viewer, we understand Seo-rae’s appeal. She’s not only beautiful but projects intelligence and depth. Though her motives remain inscrutable, we want to delve deeper to understand her perspective better. Park confesses that when he writes his female characters, “I try to make them as cool as possible.” His long-term collaborator and co-writer, Seo-kyeong Jeong, adds an element of danger. “She brings something faulty to the character, something a little unethical.” 

As Korean cinema and culture begin to take over the world, Park Chan-wook believes it’s part of natural maturation. Whereas Hollywood was able to reach its peak decades ago within the studio system, South Korea took longer due to war and restricted speech. “During the ’80s, we finally had freedom of speech. Then, of course, you need money. To make a great film, you need the technology, the capital and the freedom of expression. They’re a basic foundation for anything to flourish.” Since 2000, South Korea has had all three of these things. “Since then, the Korean soil has matured, and we are reaping those fruits now.” ■

This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Cult MTL.

Decision to Leave opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 21.

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