Park Chan-wook: “We have to accept that we have a disease in our society” | Park Chan-wook

OWhen his main man asked Park Chan-wook to describe his role in the director’s latest film, the dark romance Decision to Leave, Park told him that the character was the kind of deferential cop who “doesn’t carry a gun. , but he wears wet wipes”.

Park recalls it on Zoom with a smirk; his interpreter laughs. The director, known for Oldboy and The Handmaiden, is at the Toronto Film Festival to promote Decision to Leave, which tells the story of a mild-mannered detective (played by Park Hae-il) who gets dangerously close to the prime suspect in a murder. Case. “It’s really nice to be able to go back to the cinema,” he says of the return to in-person events (he’ll be at the London Film Festival this month). “I think I had taken for granted being able to screen my films in front of a wider audience, how valuable that experience was, before the pandemic. But now I know.

The idea for his new film came from crime novels. Park remarked that their protagonists were “pretty violent, very macho, some of their signature swearing or chain smoking”. He became interested in Martin Beck’s series of 1960s Swedish crime novels, which presented a softer model of detective: Beck “has a very strong sense of vocation, he has his own principles”. And so Hae-jun, the wet wipes carrier from Decision to Leave (who, by the way, tries to quit smoking, at the behest of his wife) is almost “too courteous and too kind: he’s out of category of macho detectives”. ”.

Park Chan-Wook, photographed at the Toronto International Film Festival. Photography: Jeff Vespa/Rex/Shutterstock

This emphasis on restraint may surprise fans of Park’s earlier work. The director is credited with bringing Korean cinema to worldwide attention in the 2000s with a trio of stylish and ruthless revenge films in which brutal psychological ordeal is combined with maximalist violence. A man is tied up and left to drown in a river bed in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. In Oldboy, a prisoner fights through a crowd in a dark hallway armed only with a hammer, blood running down his neck. In Lady Vengeance, a group of parents bring knives and axes to the serial killer who murdered their children.

Park has never been shy about showing sex on screen either. The Handmaiden, a 2016 romance between a sequestered Japanese heiress and a conwoman posing as her maid during 1930s colonial Korea, is filled with lush erotic detail, the material splendor of the Japanese-style mansion to the budding romance between the women.

When it premiered at Cannes this year, Decision to Leave won Park the Best Director award; it also raised questions about why the film contained no sex or violence. “My two Decision to Leave leads are bad enough to be honest with their true emotions,” Park says. “They sometimes hold back from expressing what is going on inside them or sometimes say something different, something the opposite of what they really feel.” Thus, the public will have to watch and savor “all the little nuances and the little changes that occur in their faces and their gestures”.

“To do that, I had to make sure there weren’t too many stimulants around what we see. I’ve tried to make sure that nothing too strong will overshadow or overpower whatever I’m trying to convey. He describes some examples I noticed – a close-up of a pair of handcuffed hands, moving closer to another – and some I didn’t: the breaths of the two protagonists moving in synchronicity.

Decision to Leave is a slow-burning film, filled with twists and turns; The park’s subtle details reward careful, if not multiple, viewing. At the heart of the mystery is Seo-rae (played by Tang Wei), the murder victim’s wife and an immigrant with a checkered past.

“The biggest goal for me and my co-writer [Jeong Seo-kyeong] was to really go beyond this stereotype of film noir women,” he says of Seo-rae, who is neither a blameless madonna nor a femme fatale. The film adopts certain genre tropes and then plays with them. We see Hae-jun staking out Seo-rae’s apartment at night, noting her penchant for eating ice cream for dinner; the voyeuristic man watching his seductive, oblivious target from afar. Then Seo-rae starts looking back at him, triggering a game of intrigue.

Park also plays with the idea of ​​failure. Solving a mystery does not always result in resolving a conflict, he says. For all the differences between Park’s new film and his 2000s Vengeance trilogy, they all take on a genre that typically teases some sort of satisfaction – whether that’s solving a crime or dealing a long-awaited stroke of justice – and then frustrates this deliverance. Discoveries of the truth leave his characters haunted by more questions; revenge is not sweet but rather leaves you hollow and pained with guilt.

Tang Wei as Seo-rae in Decision to Leave.
Tang Wei as Seo-rae in Decision to Leave.

Park, who studied philosophy in college and originally wanted to be an art critic, is personable and thoughtful in interviews. He was asked about his portrayals of violence throughout his career. What does he think of our current moment, in which anger has once again exploded in public life, notably through movements seeking revenge against another perceived as intruders: immigrants, refugees, feminists?

“If you look at history, it’s quite common for politicians to tap into people’s hatred of others,” he says. “All of my revenge films are basically about the futility of going after people, and there’s nothing you can get out of an act of revenge. Sympathy for Mr Vengeance deals with the conflict between classes, and also, even if none of my films address the subject of anger or hatred towards women, which exists in our society, it is important for us to accept the fact that we have this disease. We have to look at it head-on, and that’s the only way to reach a resolution. Filmmaking, he says, can help us face what needs to be faced; on-screen stories can spark real-life conversations: “That’s the power of art.”

The global release of Decision to Leave is still underway – it will be South Korea’s entry for best international feature film at next year’s Oscars – but Park is already working on many new projects, including an adaptation HBO’s Vietnam War novel The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, as well as a western and a sci-fi film. He credits streaming platforms for the recent explosion of global interest in Korean culture; the “resistance to subtitles has gone down a lot”. The current generation of top directors, such as Parasite’s Bong Joon-ho and Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk, were in college during South Korea’s struggle for democracy in the 1980s. points out that this is a factor behind the nation’s reputation for producing works that are highly sensitive to issues of social class and political struggle.

While it’s tempting to tell the story of Park’s career as one that began with a fascination with violence in his youth to one that has now embraced romance and restraint, Park isn’t done yet. with revenge. He plans to remake the 2005 French film The Axe, based on a novel about a middle-aged man who loses his office job and becomes a serial killer. When I ask him what he wants to know more about the subject, he laughs. “Well, it’s too early for me to say anything because I haven’t worked on the projects you’re referring to, so I haven’t really thought about it.”

His creative process is much less methodical. “When I make a film, even when I write the screenplay, I don’t know what film I’m making. I’m just telling the story which I think is going to be entertaining and fun for the audience. It wasn’t until he started the editing process that he realized, “Oh, this that’s what I’m trying to say. The camera angles, the shots, the script lines all seem to come together at the end, he says, “like I had it all planned out from the start… It’s pretty amazing how the subconscious of the Creator.”

Decision to Leave is in cinemas from 21st of October, with national previews starting October 15.

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