‘Decision To Leave’ Director Park Chan-Wook On His Romantic Detective Noir & “Opening Your Eyes Within The Mist” [NYFF]

Jan 26, 2023

With a formalist’s eye for visual symmetry, an architect’s sense of structure, and a poet’s ability to stoke the passions raging inside his precisely balanced frames, Park Chan-wook makes ferociously controlled films about ferocious, uncontrollable impulses. Ever since his international breakthrough with 2003’s “Oldboy,” remembered most for the oft-imitated hallway sequence in which a hammer-wielding Choi Min-sik lays waste to enemy waves in a righteous bid for freedom, the South Korean filmmaker has been widely associated with operatic bursts of sexuality and extreme violence, the kind often considered a signature of the New Korean Cinema. 
Park has hardly shied from this notoriety, even binding “Oldboy” together with “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “Lady Vengeance,” the films he made directly before and after, as entries in a so-called Vengeance Trilogy. But present as well within the sophisticated visual grammar and narrative intrigue of Park’s oeuvre are other, more slippery elements that are more frequently overlooked, from his sustained engagement with the gendered politics of gazing and cross-cultural perception, brought most to the fore in “The Handmaiden,” to his cinephilic tangling with the sadomasochistic tensions of illicit romance in everything from Hitchcock (“Stoker”) to le Carré (“The Little Drummer Girl”) and Raquin (“Thirst”). 
READ MORE: ‘Decision To Leave’ Review: Park Chan-Wook Conjures Elusive Illusions & A Seductive Romance [Cannes]
“Decision to Leave” (now in theaters), Park’s beguilingly romantic twist on a detective noir, finds the filmmaker indulging in the same aesthetics of deception and desire that fueled his past thrillers, but his approach to the story’s mysterious, ever-shifting tone feels at once unusually contemporary for Park and more theatrically lurid. It opens as a veteran detective, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il), is called to a mountaintop to investigate the case of a man (Yoo Seung-mok) who appears to have fallen to his death while climbing. After meeting the man’s widow, Seo-rae (Tang Wei), who appears oddly unfazed by her husband’s brutal fate, the detective comes to consider her a murder suspect — and finds himself continually drawn toward her long after the case goes cold. 
As Hae-joon and Seo-rae become dangerously intertwined, the detective struggles to separate professional commitment to the investigation from a personal attraction that clouds his judgment. Park revels in this elegant and overpowering mood of ambiguity, swirling all manner of linguistic contradictions, romantic ellipses, and striking aesthetic mirrors together into a heady fugue of obsession and obfuscation that, he insinuates, looks hauntingly like love.
After premiering at Cannes, where Park won the Best Director prize, and opening in South Korea, which chose the film as its official Oscar submission, “Decision to Leave” stopped into the New York Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release on Oct. 14, via MUBI. Sitting across from Director Park and his translator, Jiwon Lee, in a suite of New York’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, this interviewer couldn’t help but notice a pair of binoculars on the end table — ideally placed for peering, forty floors down, at the foot traffic flowing along Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It seemed a fitting accessory throughout our conversation about “Decision to Leave,” the allure of opacity, and the limits of observation.
Émile Zola, whose “Therese Raquin” you adapted into “Thirst,” once wrote that “art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” I often feel this way about your art — that it reflects a rather striking temperament — and so I wanted to start by asking about the temperament of “Decision to Leave.”
This is a film that aims not to reveal its temperament, especially in speaking about the characters. But when the characters are hiding their emotions all the time, then the audience won’t be able to feel anything. With each of the characters, one might not catch the other’s true emotions. The character themselves might not know their own emotions. But the audience has to be aware of them. 
First, speaking about the female character of Seo-rae, after arriving in Korea she finds it difficult to maintain the dignity she had before. But after meeting this detective, Hae-joon, who identifies the dignity within her and treats her as a person with dignity, she feels a sense of stability and happiness. When they’re saying compliments to each other — for instance, when the woman calls the detective a “dignified man,” and when the man calls the woman “a woman with straight posture” — it’s what they want to hear about themselves and what they want to become. It’s how they express their ideals.
Obfuscation, and the characters’ inability to see through clearly, is a major motif in “Decision to Leave,” despite the centrality of interrogation and examination to it as well. Hae-joon’s wife wants him to quit smoking, but mist holds a hypnotic appeal; one-way mirrors visualize that in another way, as does the clouded eye of the deceased husband, and that idea of Hae-joon and Seo-rae telling one another what they want to hear adds to this overriding sense of broken or blurred vision.
This film was inspired by an older Korean pop song [by Jung Hoon Hee,] called “Mist,” so it really started from the lyrics of that song. Near the end of the song are the words “open your eyes within the mist.” And I thought a lot about what these words mean, and I realized it is basically a command for you when your sight is blurred within the mist, and you can’t see clearly, to properly open your eyes and see what you want to see. 
On the subject of what you need to see clearly, this could be an object, or it could be a person, especially a person you love. It could also be your own emotions. To identify your own emotions clearly, it could be a metaphor for that. So, because this movie was inspired by that song, that is why the setting of our story takes place in a city with a lot of mist, and the male character uses eye drops whenever he wants to see something clearly. And it also gave birth to the [costume designer Kwak Jung-ae’s] idea of Seo-rae’s dress, which might seem green at times and blue at times.
More from this interview on page two.

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