Park Chan-wook sees himself first and foremost as a storyteller, and as such his films masterfully marry striking visuals with twisty narratives that befuddle audience expectations. But, understanding character at the center of all he does, he admits a preference for the influence of detective and spy novels over certain genres that he feels might place too much of an emphasis on plot machinations.
With Decision to Leave, Park leaves behind the ultra-violence interwoven into his Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance) along with the sex that accompanied 2016’s The Handmaiden. Instead, Park offers up an intoxicating romance between Detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) and widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei). Key to their dynamic is Hae-jun’s incessant surveillance of Seo-rae, which continues even after she’s been cleared as an official suspect in the death of her husband. A lover of Hitchcock and particularly Vertigo, Park takes great joy in setting up all of the various layers of watching going on here.
As the film arrives in U.S. theaters, I spoke to Park about this very watching, along with a key moment in which he deviated from his infamous storyboards, as well as his distaste in having to explain his films to the press.
The Film Stage: Watching this film, I was reminded of a John Berger quote: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
Park Chan-wook: Does this mean that a woman prioritizes, or puts importance, on the fact that she is being looked at by a man?
Exactly. In Decision to Leave, Seo-rae discovers Detective Hae-jun watching her and seems to take pleasure in watching him watch her.
That quote’s a good portrayal of at least some elements of the film. But I feel like it can also come across as a justification for stalkers. [Laughs.] In the film he justifies all of the looking and chasing as a part of interrogation and he looks at the woman—even excessively looks at her. And inside of his own fantasy he puts himself within her apartment, and even smells it. To some people this might come across as very uncomfortable. But Seo-rae, the subject of all of this looking, describes Hae-jun as a trustworthy man who even forgoes sleep to protect her. So depending on how you take it in, it can even feel like a pleasant experience—because she also likes him back and has always felt that she’s a weak human being who has failed to be protected.
But it doesn’t stop at what seems like the male gaze, the story reverts itself in the second part of the film. Here Seo-rae sets the fire alarm off at the police station and observes Hae-jun and the police. So who’s looking has now been reversed. So the quote does embody some part of the film but I wanted to take it beyond that particular aspect of it.
The film displays the act of texting so uniquely. At times we are almost inside the phone, where we see the detective’s face with the text reflected backward across the screen. How did you come up with the visuals for all of these sequences?
The common technique is to show the closeup of the person texting and to turn to the closeup of the screen, where we see the text bubbles on the screen. We did this technique only once in the film. Our primary technique came down to the basics, where we go back and forth between the face and point-of-view shots. The foundation of a texting scene comes down to all of the emotions within the person: excitement, curiosity, being flustered—it’s all seen on the face. We portray that through the closeup, and the second element is the sending and receiving of the texts seen from the POV shots. This basic method is the most powerful and effective.
At one important moment we use an eccentric POV shot where it almost seems like you’re inside the phone. We used this only a limited number of times. The idea is that he is texting toward the person inside this phone, the receiver of the text; this is to portray that the eyes of the man are not actually on the phone, but are facing the woman that he is texting.
You work with a lot of the same collaborators, but this is your first collaboration with DP Ji-yong Kim. What was that process like bringing him into the fold?
I actually met him in the U.S. when he was shooting the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Last Stand, directed by Jee-woon Kim—it was filming while I was working on Stoker. So while it was our first time working together, we already had that relationship.
As always, I storyboarded the entire film from beginning to end. Sitting together with the DP and the storyboard artist and working on the storyboard in pre-production is a valuable time where we share our own interests and tastes. This is also when we hear the opinions of the production designer, since we scout locations together. So by the time we’re shooting together, it’s not that we’ve met for the first time; we know a lot about each other already. Spending a long time with the DP in pre-production is not as common in the U.S.
The DI [digital intermediate] process is very important to me as well. I care about the smallest details and make sure to express my opinions on those creative decisions as well. I spend more time on the DI process than any other director.
Were there any moments in Decision to Leave where the storyboards didn’t work once you were on set and you had to change your plan?
That is a very sticky problem, and I’ve had this conversation with other directors as well. If you go into week one of production and you take the storyboard out and the crew members realize that you’re not following the storyboard, then they quickly just throw it out, thinking that you don’t follow the storyboard when shooting. So all those months leading up when you’re working on the storyboards have gone to waste. So there’s only two good options, which is: not to do a storyboard at all or to try your best when you’re storyboarding. I guess there is a middle ground, which is to only storyboard action sequences.
I’m the type who always tries his best with my storyboards, so I make sure there are no surprises or changes when we go on set and we’re shooting. So we pretty much just follow the storyboard as it is. But you do have to stay open-minded and not just keep your eyes on the storyboard. I might sound like I’m going against what I’ve previously said. But when I’m shooting on set, I don’t want to spend time thinking about the camera placement or the camera movement. Those things need to be decided in advance so I can spend that time instead having conversations with our actors, and also to make sure that I can follow my instinctive thoughts that come up on the spot. That’s how the little modifications happen on set.
On Decision to Leave there were some on-set modifications that occurred that were caused by the performance of the actors. One I remember is the last ocean scene that closes the film. The original idea was that the detective is getting further and further away from the camera—it’s a long take that is eventually filled with the fog and darkness, and that’s how we close out the movie. But we had a B-camera with a telephoto lens that kept following Hae-jun’s movement—this wasn’t originally planned—but the shots from this camera ended up being very effective and also ended up being our last shot of the movie.
How did you build chemistry between actors Tang Wei and Park Hae-il to create such a romantic movie with no sex scenes between them?
As always it begins with casting two actors who I think would go along together. For this film I had the privilege to cast them before I started working on the screenplay, so I had the opportunity to reflect some of their characteristics into the story. And then I met them.
We did a lot of one-on-ones but the three of us also met together. Because Tang Wei is a mother with a child, it was difficult for her to come all the way to Seoul. So Park Hae-il and I ended up going to her house a lot. With Tang Wei it’s hard to tell whether her job is as an actor or a farmer—she loves to raise vegetables in her garden. So she would cook food with what she’s gathered from the garden and we had a lot of conversations over those dinners—sometimes with wine.
For a long time we went over not just the dialogue but also every action line as well. I explained my ideas and motivations behind each action line, and if there was anything that the actor did not understand about the characters then we had long discussions about that as well. Of course, we had reading sessions with the two actors as well.
So even before the shoot commenced the two understood every little detail about our characters and sympathized with them as well. The two actors were very close to each other before we ever got to set.
In the past you’ve espoused your love for every part of the filmmaking process. Is there a part that you like the most, that you’re always the most excited to dive into?
If I were to pick one favorite part of the process it would be screenwriting, because I fundamentally consider myself a storyteller. There’s also that element when you’re screenwriting where it’s just me and my co-writer working together. So even if we fail it’s just the two of us failing. But when you move onto the actual shoot, there’s a lot of money and a lot of people involved, so I feel a lot of pressure and I become more afraid of failure.
As a film director, a process of filmmaking that I do get tired of is the promotion process—like right now. [Laughs.] That’s not to say I dislike reporters; it’s more about how I want the audience to make judgments about the film on their own. But I have to explain the details of the film repeatedly, and I feel like it’s narrowing the angles of interpretation that the audience can make.
When you were writing Decision to Leave, did you consciously balance playing into classic noir tropes at times versus subverting them in other moments?
This might sound surprising, but I’m not the biggest fan of the noir genre. I’m not really a film buff either. I don’t rewatch the same movie multiple times. There is a charming element about the noir genre, but for a lot of noir films sometimes the plot fails, or the plot feels too artificial, or it relies too much on cliché. Of course, this is excluding the great noir films. Noir films also sometimes feel a bit more stylized. So I wasn’t very conscious of the noir genre. I was more influenced by detective novels, like Ed McBain’s series and the Swedish series with detective Martin Beck.
This is actually a little trick of mine with Decision to Leave: I pretend that the film is in the noir genre and at one point we stray off from the genre. Seo-rae is introduced as a femme fatale character, and when part one of the movie ends, this is usually when a film noir movie would end its story as well. But this is exactly where I begin part two; this is when I begin to subvert the genre and we find Seo-rae is not actually a femme fatale character, and instead we see this new form of a love story unfold.
Decision to Leave is now in limited U.S. release and will expand.