How ‘Decision to Leave’ Director Park Chan-wook Combined Police Procedural and Romance to Make His Slow-Burn Mystery

TheWrap magazine: ” I wanted to make a sexy story without sex and a love story that does not say the words, ‘I love you,'” Park says

"Decision to Leave"

This story about “Decision to Leave” and director Park Chan-wook first appeared in the International Film issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Best known for his action films “Oldboy” and “Lady Vengeance” and the erotic tale “The Handmaiden,” Korean auteur Park Chan-wook is more understated in this slow-burn tale of a police detective who becomes obsessed with a woman he suspects of killing her husband. He did this interview through a translator.

What was the genesis of this story?
It starts from my high school days when I read the novel series on Martin Beck (by Swedish authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö). At first I wanted to adapt those novels into a movie. Then I changed my mind and I wanted to adapt a single chapter — but looking back at the story that was written from it, I realized that the story of the chapter is actually not present anymore. I wanted to make a film that asks the question, “What if Martin Beck fell in love with the suspect?” I also had a second source of inspiration, “The Mist,” a popular song in Korea that I used to like. And one day I realized, “Why not combine these two separate stories?”

When you talk about combining the procedural and the love story, I think of the interrogation scene, which almost plays out like a first date.
That is exactly what we set out to do: to tell a story where the police procedural and the romance are one story. I especially want to expound on the interrogation scene because when there’s a scene of mostly just dialogue and talking, it’s a nice marker to see the characteristics of the person who is directing the scene. For instance, some directors would cross-shoot with two cameras, which I’m not saying is a bad thing. It’s just that you have to rely more on the actors and their performances.

The other approach is where you split up each line of dialogue and change the placement or the movement of the camera according to each line. I fall into that latter camp. In that scene, there is no dramatic action happening on the screen, but emotionally speaking there is dramatic action. I wanted to make a dialogue scene that is as dynamic as an action scene where people are fighting or a kissing scene that is erotic. So the important thing was not to lose tension despite the gentleness of the conversation. It is a police procedure, but also a seduction between two people.

You’re making a sexy love story with no sex, where the characters don’t even talk about their attraction.
You’re right that I wanted to make a sexy story without sex and a love story that does not say the words, “I love you.” It really comes down to performance, the camera angle and editing the facial expressions when you’re looking at the other person. The performance is hiding the character’s emotions. So in shooting, the placement of the camera, the size of the shot, the distance to the subject — the smallest difference in these creative decisions makes the biggest difference, and so does the choice of whether this shot is a second longer or even 10 frames longer.

Some directors have said they’ve set their films in the ’70s or ’80s because especially with mystery stories, they didn’t want to deal with modern technology. But you embrace it.
Modern technology feels like a curse to someone who wants to write a mystery story. All the detective has to do is look through phone records or watch footage from a CCTV camera. And it’s the same in terms of production design. It would’ve been nice if we had a case file with a cool cover instead of an iPad. And this is the same in the case of romance. Writing a love letter in ink is different from simply sending a text.

So it is cool to set the story in the past, but I wanted to make a story about contemporary people. So I decided if I can’t avoid technology, I want to actively incorporate it. The style of the entire film is very classical, and our characters are old-fashioned as well. But that clashes with the use of modern technology, and I think it created a very interesting clash.

Read more from the International Film Issue here.

Catie Laffoon for TheWrap