Park Chan-wook: “It would be heartbreaking if we couldn’t see great films in theatres”

Park Chan-wook

Park Chan-wook is entering his quiet phase. Relaxing in the easy chair of a London hotel suite, Park seems a long way from the firebrand director who once took a claw hammer to world cinema with extreme thrillers like Oldboy, Lady Vengeance and Thirst. Quickly outgrowing his reputation as Korea’s own Quentin Tarantino, his projects since have mellowed as they’ve matured – taking on gothic swooners (Stoker), sweeping literary romances (The Handmaiden) and one British spy series (The Little Drummer Girl).

Now back with Decision To Leave, the film that has already won him Best Director at Cannes, Park has built a dark detective drama (and a weird, tragic romance) from fine lines and silence. We sat down with Park to talk about making a masterpiece out of all the things that are never said and done.

As a former film critic, have you been reading any reviews of Decision To Leave?

“I never read reviews of my own films. Not because I think less of criticism, but because whenever I see anything that’s good about my work I feel embarrassed. And anything bad just makes me upset. Either way, I’m not happy.”

Why did you want to make a detective love story?

“The films I’ve made have mostly all been thrillers, in the broadest sense. But I’ve always had a great interest in police dramas and film noir. I’ve always loved reading books by Ed McBain, and the Martin Beck series too. But then I listened to the old Korean pop song, ‘The Mist’ [by Jung Hoon Hee], and I decided that I needed to make a romance that would revolve around this wonderful song. Everything clicked when I realised I might be able to combine the two.”

Park Chan-wook
Park Chan-Wook at the BFI London Film Festival. CREDIT: Alamy

In Decision To Leave, everyone refuses to act on their emotions, which feels so different from your other films…

“It was the biggest challenge I ever gave myself, and I think I accomplished what I set out to do. Yearning, by Mikio Naruse, is one of my favourite films, and I loved the way restraint became the main emotion throughout that film. The question became how to do it. I decided to go back to basics, to really play with the bare minimum in the screenplay. I didn’t want all these subtle emotions expressed through words, but at the same time I wanted to make sure the audience fully understood, and felt, how the characters were feeling.”

Did you find that difficult?

“Absolutely. A good example is when Hae-jun [Park Hae-il] first meets Seo-rae [Tang Wei]. Even before he says his first line there’s a period of time that passes without him saying anything, just staring at her. I wanted the audience to feel like something’s gone wrong with the film. I didn’t count how many seconds it lasted for, but during that silence literally nothing happens. I want my audience to recognise the passing of the time.”

Has making the film in this way changed the way you want to work in future?

“When I look at my previous work, I see a pattern. My next film is always completely different from my previous film in every sense. I go in the opposite direction. Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance was extremely cold, so Old Boy was hot as fire. My next project is the TV series, The Sympathiser. And for that I’m thinking about using a lot of dynamic camera movement and fast-paced editing. Completely different again.”

Decision To Leave
‘Decision To Leave’ follows a detective investigating a man’s death in the mountains. CREDIT: MUBI

That will be the second time you’ve made a TV series, after The Little Drummer Girl. Do you think cinema has as bright a future as the small screen?

“It’s so complicated, and things are changing by the minute. Some festivals are still excluding streaming films, and I obviously understand the concerns. But what complicates things is films like The Irishman and Roma, which I adore, and which were only able to come out with the quality and budget available thanks to streaming platforms. It’ll be a such a heartbreaking loss if we cannot watch great films like that in theatres, but if you force me to choose, I choose to live in a world where I can still see The Irishman and Roma, by any means.”

What would you do if Netflix gave you a huge budget – or Marvel handed you a blank cheque tomorrow?

“Do you know [French author] Émile Zola‘s book, La Bête Humaine? This didn’t really cross my mind until now, and I can’t really imagine ever having that much money in my hand, but I would absolutely love to film an adaption of that book. It’s set against the backdrop of the Paris railway in the 19th century, so it would cost a lot. Actually, I don’t even know if I’d need that much money… There’s another project about the citizens of Leningrad surviving the Nazi siege during the Second World War too. I’d love to make a survival drama about that, using the music of Shostakovich. That would probably be pretty expensive… I hope it happens!”

Park Chan-wook’s ‘Decision To Leave’ is in cinemas now

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