Director Park Chan-wook tones it down for his latest film, 'Decision to Leave'

Park Chan-wook [CJ ENM]

For the first time in many years, the newest film directed by Park Chan-wook, “Decision to Leave,” for which he received Best Director at this year’s Cannes, isn’t rated R.

Compared to his prior films such as “The Handmaiden” (2016), “Thirst” (2009), “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005), “Oldboy” (2003) and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), the degree of sexually explicit and violent scenes has been toned down.

The film rides a fine line between investigative drama and romance as a police detective named Hae-jun, portrayed by Park Hae-il, begins to fall for a suspect — a Chinese widow named Seo-rae, portrayed by Tang Wei. Seo-rae is on the police radar for presumably having killed her husband, who was found dead at the base of a mountain.

At a press event on June 2, Park, fresh back from Cannes, said that the two genres cannot be separated: “A detective meets a suspect, gains information about her, questions her, follows her and goes on a stakeout to watch her. He waits for her outside. The whole process of investigation is like how a couple begins their relationship.”

The film is the fifth collaboration of Park and his longtime business partner, screenwriter Jeong Seo-kyung, since “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” and according to Park at an online press interview Monday, the idea for “Decision to Leave” derived from a dare.

Park Chan-wook designed the narrative to ride a fine line between investigative drama and romance genreas as Hae-jun, portrayed by Park Hae-il, becomes attracted to a suspect named Seo-rae, portrayed by Tang Wei, as he questions her. [CJ ENM]

“From the beginning, Jeong had said that we could never make a movie about love,” Park said. “She said that we are not that kind [of people]. So I wanted to show her that we could, by actually doing it. It took a lot of wheedling and persuasion to complete the romance story with Jeong, and I don’t think she ever really felt that we did, even after we finished the script. She gradually seemed to realize it more as she visited the set and saw the actors perform, and after it was finished, she was ever so surprised, even though she had written it. I think the power of the narrative was brought forward by the performance of actors Tang Wei and Park Hae-il. The duo’s performance was superb in the sense that they hid their romantic feelings for each other but made it apparent for the audience.”

Since the world premiere at Cannes, it was famously known that Park and Jeong wrote the narrative with the intent to cast Tang Wei.

Director Park Chan-wook and writer Jeong Seo-kyung wrote the script with the intent to cast Tang Wei in "Decision to Leave." [CJ ENM]

"I have wanted to work with her since ‘Lust, Caution’ [2007], ‘Late Autumn’ [2010] and ‘The Golden Era’ [2014]," Park said.

"I think her attraction is, how may I put it, her composure is very erect," he said, quoting a line from the film when Hae-jun describes what he likes about Seo-rae. "It is actually a line that we wrote thinking of her, but I think it also goes for Park Hae-il as well. When we say that we like someone, and look for the reason why, and, more often than not, it’s ultimately because they are similar to us or they are idealistic as to what we want to become. When Jeong and I wrote the script, I thought this line was true for both of the actors.”

Park Hae-il's Hae-jun is a unique character in the sense that he shatters the image of those tough police detectives that local audience is familiar with. He is a gentlemen who always wears tailored suits with a dozen pockets containing various necessities such as lip balm, hand cream and eyedrops; he is kind to suspects and has strict principles against using force or violence during investigation; and although he wears sneakers, he always wears black ones to match his suits.

The character of Hae-jun was inspired from the Martin Beck police mystery series that Park Chan-wook came across during his high school years. [CJ ENM]

“The idea for Hae-jun was derived from the protagonist of the Martin Beck police mystery series,” Park said. “Instead of using the character’s profession as a means for showing action sequences, I wanted to show the detective as a worker, like a journalist or engineer. So it may seem realistic, but also far from reality; it did start from the notion that this character thinks of himself as a hardworking civil worker dedicated to work for the good of the citizens. He wants to pay respect to them through his attire, with suit and tie. He thinks that it’s also part of his duty and his dignity to look smart and clean, so he would need many pockets to maintain his look, even if he does spend nights on duty or at crime scenes.”

The female protagonists in Park’s films always have their own iconic color that symbolizes them; in “Lady Vengeance,” it was her red eyeshadow, in “Thirst,” it was the sapphire blue dress that she wore. In “Decision to Leave,” Seo-rae flaunts a turquoise dress that matches the color of the walls in her home, with patterns that can look like mountains or waves.

The wallpaper in Seo-rae's home from "Decision to Leave" are designed to look either blue or green, and like mountains or waves, based on different perspectives, according to Park Chan-wook. [CJ ENM]

“The wallpaper was purposefully designed so that for some, it may look like waves, and for others, it may look like mountains,” Park said. “It also looks blue or green [depending on the light], like Seo-rae’s dress. Even the characters’ emotions and situations, depending on the perspective, vary. Seo-rae may be identified as a widow of a victim, or she may be a murderess. She is someone who cannot be stipulated by facts of what is real or not. So the waves became an important motive in this film. It’s a natural phenomenon to which one can feel the power of that mountainous fate. When it’s still, it’s not scary at all — one wants to be wrapped within it. But once it gets angry, one fears it — it’s ever-changing and a power that we cannot dare to go against. That’s what the waves felt like to me.”

Park, overall, is satisfied with how his attempt at romance turned out, although he says that it doesn’t mean he will continue to make less-brutal or violent films.

Park Chan-wook [CJ ENM]

“Among the multiple scripts that I have in store right now, there are films that are extremely violent, and there are also some that are even less violent than this one,” Park said. “It doesn’t mean that I’ve changed my course to this completely. I match the degree of expression depending on what the story demands. I am satisfied overall with how this project turned out. The two actors’ performance was admirable to me, so the film offers entertainment even after watching it multiple times. Compared to my other works, the film has fewer scenes which I regret.”

The film was released in theaters on Wednesday.