Park Chan-wook Talks About Taking Film Noir to New Heights With ‘Decision to Leave’

Much of the world knows Korean entertainment through superstar pop music performers like BTS and Black Pink. Then, with “Squid Game,” the world fell for Korean drama. And thanks to Bong Joon Ho and his “Parasite” Oscar-winner, more of the planet has learned of the powerhouse that is Korean cinema. ¶ The Korean film industry’s proficiency is scarcely new. Bong, together with the likes of Kim Jee-woon (“A Bittersweet Life”) and the multihyphenate Park Chan-wook are part of a cohort of leading directors who emerged at the beginning of the millennium and remain at the forefront. Over some two decades, they have given Korean cinema an impeccable reputation for combining style, substance and smart storytelling.   

With his latest drama, “Decision to Leave,” on the Oscar international film shortlist after a glittering run on the festival circuit and a successful worldwide release, it is now Park’s turn in the spotlight. 

“Decision” has been described as a modern-day film noir, as Det. Jang Hae-joon (played by Park Hae-il as if he was just transported from the 1946 Warner Bros. lot) investigates a murder. Naturally, the victim’s wife, Song Seo-rae (a fabulous Tang Wei channeling both Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford) is the prime suspect. Jang falls hard for Song, but of course, nothing is at it appears. Not even for Park, the film’s director.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t start off trying to make a modern portrayal of the noir genre, but rather I wanted to start off from that genre and then move beyond it,” says Park.  

Stretching a genre beyond what audiences expect is something fans of Park’s oeuvre have come to expect. “Joint Security Area” (2000), “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), “Lady Vengeance” (2005), “I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK” (2006), “Stoker” (2013) and “Oldboy” (2003) — the octopus dinner scene is now iconic — established Park as kinetic with the camera, an impeccable stylist and willing to unleash captivating doses of sex and ultra-violence. 

Dan Doperalski for Variety

In 2016’s critically acclaimed “The Handmaiden,” Park plays with a twisty plot, graphic sex and lots of double-crossing — and love — all set in Japanese-occupied Korea, adding another layer for audiences to unpack. But to Park, “Decision to Leave” is definitely a love story. 

“Before making this movie, I thought to myself, if I tell everybody that I’m making another love story, would they laugh at me?” Park says. “I brought that on myself because I’ve always had too much violence and sex in my movies. So, people have been disregarding them as love stories.” 

Park continues: “So I realized I had to get rid of that veil in order for people to see the romance story that rests inside. I had to tone down the violence and nudity that takes over people’s [perceptions] of my films. And that’s when people will finally be able to see the romance story within.”

His breakdown of “Decision” is revealing. “When we reach part two of the story, there is no longer any doubt or suspense. It’s no longer about whether this woman killed or didn’t kill her husband, because it’s so blatantly obvious,” Park explains. “At that point it is no longer a film noir or a mystery film. The question now becomes, why did the woman move to a new city, and choose to go to the very city where the detective had [also] moved?’”

The film launched at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival with a bang, winning Park a best director accolade. He’s no stranger to Cannes, having competed there with four times, and winning prizes for “Thirst” and “Oldboy.”  

Park says that making “Decision” was a form of therapy. “Back when I was working on [TV miniseries] ‘Little Drummer Girl’ in London, I’d been abroad for so long. It was physically tormenting directing six episodes there as well,” he remembers. “By the time we reached post-production, psychologically speaking, I was very tired and homesick.” 

While in the U.K., Park turned to his screenwriting partner Chung Seo-kyung, whom he met on “Lady Vengeance,” and with whom he has collaborated on “The Handmaiden,” “Thirst” and “I’m a Cyborg.” Their highly evolved ability to think each other’s thoughts and finish each other’s sentences means Chung has also made uncredited contributions to other Park films, including his sole English-language effort, “Stoker.” 

Chung had “taken her family on a trip to London for their holiday, but also to make me feel better,” Park admits bashfully.

“I want to make a Korean film next — what should I do? That’s how the conversation started. And I think she actually said in an interview that brainstorming the ideas for a new script had probably been therapeutic for [me].”

Dan Doperalski for Variety

With “Decision,” Park again probes the “other” — Chinese actor Tang plays an immigrant, giving the film a subtext of pan-Asian immigration, identity politics and history of subjugation in the region. Asian filmmakers are increasingly probing these issues, especially in Korea, with series such as “Pachinko.” Identity issues also underlie a wave of recent films made in Korea by overseas-based Asian directors, including Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul,” He Shuming’s “Ajoomma” and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Broker.”  

It’s an exciting time for the Korean industry and for Korean filmmakers.  

“We used to share scripts quite frequently in the past,” Park says of heavyweights like Bong. “But now everyone’s so busy and they’re never in the same country, so it’s become more difficult.

“I’ve never really considered my colleagues as rivals. I don’t know what they think. But for me personally, I think they’re just people who inspire me. I have a lot of respect for them. And on top of that, I guess they’ve also helped me. Ever since ‘Parasite’ did so well abroad, it’s helped a lot of Korean films get more attention.” 

In his role as producer, mentor and short-film maker, Park works with many filmmakers including younger brother Park Chan-kyong (Berlin Golden Bear-winning short “Night Fishing”), “Joint Security Area” screenwriter Lee Moo-young and Lee Kyoung-mi — Park wrote and produced her debut film, “Crush and Blush.” 

Is there something special about this generation of Korean filmmakers?  

“I thought about that question a lot because we all have such different personalities. If I were to ask myself, what do they have in common? I think the first thing first [is that] they’re all cinephiles who love watching movies, especially relative to the prior generations,” says Park. Bong was the founder of the elite film club called Yellow Door.

“Labeling them as cinephiles, I don’t know if it works, but relatively speaking, within Korea, they are. I personally don’t watch too many movies or watch them multiple times,” he says with a laugh. 

Park is now in Los Angeles as executive producer of “The Sympathizer,” starring Robert Downey Jr., from A24 for HBO. “It has been easier. First of all, for ‘Little Drummer Girl,’ I directed all six episodes, but for this one I’m only directing three out of seven. And of course, the Korean food [in Los Angeles] helps!” Park laughs. 

The series, based on Viet Tanh Nguyen’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, centers on a mole from North Vietnam embedded in the South Vietnamese army. But when the mole is exiled to the U.S., he remains tied to the local South Vietnamese community, eventually returning to Vietnam to fight the communists.  

Downey Jr., Susan Downey and Amanda Burrell also executive produce along with Niv Fichman and Kim Ly. 

“Working with Robert — he’s such an amazing actor and such an energetic man and a joy to be around. It’s been really great to be working with him. Also, Robert’s wife Susan is such an intelligent woman and a smart producer. It’s been great to work with her and she’s been tremendous help to me,” he says. 

The Korean Wave looks far from losing any power.