Combining the Past and the Future: A Conversation with Park Chan-wook

A wide-ranging discussion spanning from the Korean director's filmmaking origins to his latest film, the noir romance "Decision to Leave."
Hans Ulrich Obrist

Park Chan-wook's Decision to Leave is exclusively showing on MUBI in many countries in the series Luminaries.

Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, 2022).

It’s been a great pleasure and privilege to talk with Park Chan-wook for my ongoing interview project. This project, which has involved 4,000 conversations with visual artists, architects, poets, film directors, and novelists, aims at bringing all the art forms together, pooling knowledge to create a polyphony of art and culture of our time.

In these interviews, there are often recurrent questions about unrealized projects and advice for future artists, but I particularly emphasize beginnings: How does an artist begin? How does someone come to art, or to cinema, or to architecture? What’s the first film, the first artwork, that the artist feels is when they found their own language?

I’ve known director Park Chan-wook since Joint Security Area (2000) all the way through Lady Vengeance (2005) and The Handmaiden (2016), but I am particularly fascinated by Decision to Leave (2022), because it’s such a different film. He once said, “Life is full of pain and happiness, and that’s what I wanted to show—living without hate for people is almost impossible.” While this may refer to earlier films, which have a lot to do with revenge, I think these big topics—like death, hope, fear, life, as Gilbert & George say—to which I would add happiness and pain, are very relevant to Decision to Leave. In our discussion, Park talks about his long process—long preproduction, long production, and long postproduction—and I found that slowness particularly interesting. The themes of Decision to Leave are complex—Park is not a director who aims to send out a message with a new film. This work is more multi-layered; he wants his story to be interpreted in as many ways as possible.

Our conversation, which took place over Zoom during the release of the film in the UK, focuses on unpacking the complexity of Decision to Leave.  I must thank Miky Lee, who has put Korean cinema in such a major way on the map as a producer. She’s a great junction-maker, bringing together different art forms, and it is she who made the original connection between myself and Park Chan-wook. All my thanks also to Efe Çakarel for his vision to bring art and cinema together in a totally new way. 

NOTEBOOK: I've been doing these interviews for a long time with film directors, visual artists, and architects, and I always begin with the beginning. I wanted to ask you how it all began, and if there was an epiphany, or a revelation. How did you come to film, or how did film come to you?

PARK CHAN-WOOK: I had two moments of epiphany. The first one was when I watched Kim Ki-young’s Woman of Fire '82—he actually remade his own [1971] film in 1982. The next one was in 1984 when I watched Vertigo (1958) for the first time. Unlike when I watched Woman of Fire '82, which was in the theater, I saw Vertigo on video, on a very small monitor. On top of that, there were no English or Korean subtitles so I had to imagine the whole story as I was watching it. I had to fill these empty spaces with my own imagination. Of course, this wasn't new for me, because there weren't many opportunities to watch good movies back then in Korea. Since I was young, from when I was in elementary school to when I entered college, there was this television channel that played broadcasts for the US Army in Korea, and the things playing on that channel had no subtitles either. In addition to that, even though the films were in color, I had to watch them in black and white because Korea only started broadcasting color television in the '80s. So in addition to imagining the story, I also had to imagine what the color was supposed to look like.

NOTEBOOK: You studied philosophy before you came to film. It's really interesting that you then decided to leave philosophy because you were disappointed with the analytic orientation of the department. I suppose that interest in philosophy will always be there for you, but you decided to not pursue philosophy academically. How do you connect to philosophy today; do you still have an interest in it?

PARK: What I wanted to focus on in philosophy was specifically aesthetics in philosophy. I kind of chose the wrong school for that because the university that I went to, Sogang University, had no classes on aesthetics at the time. Instead, because it was a Jesuit school and priests taught the classes most of the time, there was a lot of focus on Medieval Catholic philosophy, which did not interest me. Shortly after I entered college I grew more interested in film and photography, so I found something new to focus on.

1982, the time when I had entered college, was a very important time in modern Korean history because there were a lot of active student demonstrations against the government. It was a similar situation to that of the late 1960s in Europe. It was difficult to have normal classes in college at the time because the police army—not simply policemen from the station but an army of policemen—used to stay at college campuses and use violence to fight against the student demonstrations. Every day we had to deal with tear bombs on campus; or we would hear news of friends or of other students who had killed themselves by jumping off a building; or we would hear of people being tortured by the police. It was a difficult time, and also a difficult time for college students to actually study at college.

Although I don't follow a specific school of philosophy or philosopher now, what I've learned through that philosophy major is that when working with a certain theme or dealing with a certain subject, not just to deal with the theme on the surface but to pursue the logic of it until the very end.

Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: You’ve often said that in your creative process you don't refer to particular films or filmmakers, which you say is connected to having a bad memory and not clearly remembering the films that you've watched. When asked about influences you often talk about literature. I'm very interested in this connection to literature because Jeanne Moreau, the French actress, always told me that if we think about cinema, we need to also think about its connection to literature. When I was reading all your interviews, like the 2004 one you did with the Hollywood Reporter, you mentioned literary influences: Shakespeare, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, or from the more recent past, Kurt Vonnegut. Can you tell me about how these have influenced the way you make your films?

PARK: Literature is most definitely something that creatively affects me and opens the door to my power of imagination. Even when reading abstract or conceptual literature, I would always think of images in my head as I'm reading. Of course, if it’s a brilliant novel or a play, it has all the elements that will inspire these images within you, so you get to imagine what the space looks like when the story is happening or what kind of clothes the characters are wearing. What does the season look like, or even what kind of tree is standing in that space? Because I grew up in a typical middle-class household with nothing dramatic or eventful in my life, I've always been drawn to this exotic, dramatic world abroad.

Because it was a difficult political period in Korea when I was in college, a very devastating and painful time, I escaped into literature. By doing that, I actually also learned about the relationship between a human and the rest of society. There's a very important group of writers that I did not mention in the Hollywood Reporter, who wrote genre literature. I’ve read a lot of mystery and spy novels as well. I am greatly influenced by Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, John le Carré, and others.

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned mystery novels because this brings us to your most recent film, Decision to Leave. You described it as a murder mystery romance. When you initially announced it in 2020, I read it referred to as Decision to Break Up, but then this decision to break up became the decision to leave. How did you move from the decision to break up to the decision to leave?

PARK: Actually in Korea, the title is still Decision to Break Up. We first tried translating it word-for-word but ended up changing it a bit. So even though it's not 100 percent accurate, we decided to go with Decision to Leave. There's no particular reason behind why we decided to do that, I just thought that Decision to Leave had a more poetic ring to it. I also think “leave” is a more active word that expresses action more visually. For instance, you can leave by getting in a car or you can be walking, and this title really captures that action of leaving itself. I usually like that feeling of inspiring image and action more.

Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: When discussing Decision to Leave, you have said that you were starting from a common place: a detective falling in love with a suspect. It's a completely new take on this idea of the detective because it also brings in emotion. How did you come to that decision?

PARK: This actually follows on from our previous discussion of literary influences. When I was in high school, I really enjoyed reading a Swedish novel, The Laughing Policeman, which is the fourth book in a series about this detective, Martin Beck. The ten books in that series have been slowly published in Korea. The beginning of how the story of Decision to Leave came to be was the idea of, “What if Martin Beck fell in love with his suspect?” After, the film became something completely different, and it seems unrelated from where we had started, but what has remained is how this detective character struggles between love and the strong sense of responsibility for his job.

NOTEBOOK: As far as I understand, another trigger for the film was actually a song, this very beautiful song, “Mist,” which plays a very important role in the film. It's a famous pop song in Korea, which is interpreted by a famous female singer and a famous male singer, whom you brought together for the film. It seems to be much more than a soundtrack; it's part of the soul of the movie in a way, no?

PARK: Actually, after this interview is over, I have to film a video on my iPhone. It's for a documentary about the female singer who sang this song, Jung Hoon Hee. She's always been a star to us older generations, but after the film's release, she has also become a star for the younger generation as well, so she's really living through her second prime right now. I'm very proud of how, through this film, the younger generation got to know the song and the greatness of this singer. That alone makes me proud for having made the movie.

Decision to Leave uses this song as a medium to establish this relationship with earlier modern Korean culture, following history and its lineage as well. The female singer and the male singer, from the late '60s to the '70s, were some of the greatest singers in Korea at the time. The composer of the song was also the greatest jazz man, and the greatest composer for pop songs of that time. This song was first made as the soundtrack for another film, the 1967 movie Mist, which is reminiscent of Antonioni. This modern masterpiece is actually based on one of the greatest short stories of Korean literature. So by following this great lineage of great literature and a great film, followed by a great composer and great singers, Decision to Leave marks that final point of that lineage of Korean culture.

The lyrics of the song—it's still not certain who actually wrote the lyrics—actually inspired the story for the movie. The lyrics talk about seeing a silhouette in the mist, and it's the silhouette of a lover that the singer is no longer together with. It really expresses that pain, that sadness, that comes from looking at your former lover in an uncertain world. So while, on the surface, the lyrics talk about a former lover, if we extend the interpretation a little, it also kind of embodies an unclear view of the world, wondering about what really is real and what really is true. In this blurry world that we live in, what is this truth? How does the other person truly feel and how do I truly feel as well? These lyrics are really all about the ambiguity of the world that we live in. There's these words inside the lyrics which are, “Open your eyes amidst the mist.” This one line was a very epiphanic line for me. I remember listening to the song and just enjoying it, and this one line just completely shocked me. I wanted to capture that feeling in the film. In the film, that line is expressed through the detective character who uses eye drops: he's blinking whenever he's trying to see an object clearly.

Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: You mentioned earlier that you were going to film on a smartphone later today. I was wondering how technology affected or changed the way you work? In Decision to Leave digital devices appear as important tools between the protagonists. There is a point-of-view shot filmed from inside the phone, where the lover is peeking inside the phone and watching the phone. It's also about how these people connect. Hae-joon also picks up Seo-rae’s abandoned phone from the car and plays the voice recording. He sees a reflection of himself on the phone, so the phone becomes a mirror. Anne Imhof, the visual artist who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, brought smartphones into her art installation. Her dancers are communicating via smartphones, and in your film, I think there is a similar way of bringing digital devices into the field as tools for communication. Can you talk about how technology has changed the way you work, and how you bring these digital devices into the film itself?

PARK: I think film is always related to the development of technology, and it's not always a positive development. I've always been wary of these changes in technology. I was one of the first filmmakers in Korea to use digital cameras, digital sound mixing, and digital color correction, and also one of the world's first filmmakers to film a short on a smartphone. I’ve also always wanted to make a 3D film—I actually wanted to make The Handmaiden in 3D but it bumped up the budget too much.

Korean people call smartphones “handphones,” and I think it quite literally expresses how the phone is an extension of one's body. Making film with that extension of one's body could be called an ideal form of filmmaking—not having to rely on these large devices that require the hands of a professional. I think it's really revolutionary in the sense that it brings us back to the time and age when one could write a masterpiece with just a pen. Unfortunately, the current devices we have are not quite enough for the level of artistic achievement that one strives for, so it is quite limiting. If Dostoevsky could have written better work with a more expensive pen, then he would have done that. Unfortunately with filmmaking, you do need that expensive pen to write the work that you want. But when there is a day and age when one can use cheap, easy devices to make a quality film, I think cinema will enter a revolutionary new age.

As for Decision to Leave, I wanted to make a romance film, so at first I wanted to minimize the use of these devices, but then I realized that it's impossible to portray modern life without featuring such devices. Instead, I decided to actively incorporate these modern devices into the film even more than with what is seen in works that are portraying teenagers in modern situations. For lovers, depending on how you look at it, rather than writing letters with beautiful handwriting, there are some strengths about sending text to each other because you can communicate in real time. From writing the letter, to having it delivered, and then the other person having to read it and then reply, there's this time and space that is created and a natural sense of longing as a result. But with texting, because you can share your thoughts in real time, there is a new form of interaction in terms of the emotions that you communicate. Because you're looking at the messages at the same time, you can easily imagine the other person inside the phone. And when you're listening to your own voice on your phone, you can imagine yourself mummified in the past. You can use it as a mirror in that sense. Smartphones really can be seen as an extension of one's body. You can be seen as your hand, or your mouth, or your ears, or even your eyes.

Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: In Soo-rae’s house, there is wallpaper with patterns that look like waves and mountain peaks at the same time. She’s also translating an ancient Chinese book, Classic of Mountains and Seas, from Chinese to Korean. Can you talk about the mountains and the sea, which you brought into the film so brilliantly through these things?

PARK: It started by creating from the situation in which these characters, Soo-rae and Hae-joon, come from very contrasting backgrounds but they're attracted to each other. Following the lines of the logic of Confucius, who divides people into the people of the mountain and people who are more attracted to the ocean, these two characters are connected by both being ocean people. I wanted to find a way to express that these two different characters are connected without saying that out loud. So, Soo-rae’s first husband was someone who likes the mountains and he also forced her to go mountain climbing with him, which she did not like. You might remember that this man said that when he was listening to Mahler and climbing the mountains he was so happy that he could die there. So even though Soo-rae killed him out of hatred, she created this death that the man had always wanted, which was painful for her because she was afraid of heights. This was the most difficult thing for her, but it was the happiest way for the man to die. You could almost say this is the last remaining piece of moral conscience that Soo-rae held on to. It might not seem like much, but to her it really mattered.

So we start with this character who doesn't like the mountains and she has to commit a murder in the mountains, and in the end, because she's an ocean person, she disappears in that ocean. Her journey begins from the mountains, climbs down, and ends on the ocean. Of course, there are also the Chinese classical pieces on mountains and the ocean, and even though they're titled Classic of Mountains and Seas, they actually go beyond this and discuss the way of the universe as a whole. What I wanted to express through those books is that, even though this is a simple story featuring two protagonists, it's a story that creates an independent universe of its own. When I was searching for the location for the ending, I was very happy because I found large, mountain-looking rocks by the ocean, and it even had those perfect pine trees as well. By finding these rocks by the ocean, I could capture the mountain and the ocean in one frame.

NOTEBOOK: I think it's so important that we can see an artwork again and again—it's the same with painting, with literature, or with writing, where we can read a book again and again—and each time we see something else. That’s what you aim to do with this work: you want to make a film that you don't get tired of even after watching it many times. Can you explain to me how one can create a film which one will never get tired of watching? Marcel Duchamp once said that the viewer does 50 percent of the work, and I have the feeling that the same thing is true with films—particularly with a film like this, each time you see it, you see something else. The viewer gets very involved. It's a form of participation.

PARK: Yes, I'm always working towards creating work like that. That's honestly really my sole purpose, to make a film that you can see 50 years or 100 years later and still enjoy, a film that is still worth seeing even in the far future. There are ways to head towards the past and there are ways to head towards the future. To head towards the past is to consider something about humans, elements about humans that don't change, to return to that very original form of thought, that original form of emotion or range of thoughts that humans always go through. If you think about those unchanging elements about mankind and if you have those elements in your work, mankind of the future will relate to those same elements. When you're headed towards the future, in terms of how the world is changing, and which direction the world is changing towards, you need to reflect on this and to predict this. When you do that you can create a prophetic work. To take Decision to Leave as an example, emotions of love, loss, and longing, these are unchanging emotions of mankind. On the other side, by actively incorporating modern technology and modern devices, the film is also trying to head towards the future. Combining these elements of the past and the future is what I tried to do with the film.

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