One might be tempted to call the new Park Chan-wook film Decision to Leave “Hitchcockian,” but don’t be fooled. This simmering thriller might have echoes of Vertigo, but the South Korean master insists that he didn’t have Hitchcock on the brain. Park, speaking with a group of journalists during the Toronto International Film Festival, says references to Hitchcock are unintentional.
“It was only after my film released to the public that people saw that influence,” explains Park via a translator. “I didn’t quite get it in the beginning. Then I read those reviews and I heard from other people. I started to see where that comes from. I think that, subconsciously, I am always under the influence of Hitchcock.”
Critics and audiences might also find the mesmerizing film a throwback to the days of noir. Decision to Leave features a sensationally smouldering performance from Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) as Seo-rae, a Chinese woman whose Korean husband dies during a climbing “accident.” When detective Hae-joon (Park Hae-il, The Host) delivers the news, it doesn’t move Seo-rae. Whether she’s guilty or simply relieved becomes a question that spirals deep into the brain of Park’s moody gumshoe. Seo-rae is one of Park’s best creations—one that shouldn’t invite comparison to Hitchcock, but instead reaffirm that Park and Hitchcock, at their best, work on the same plane. It’s easy to see why this film scored Park the Best Director prize at Cannes this year.
A Question of Genre
Park, best known for revenge thrillers like Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, horror flicks like Stoker and Thirst, and the erotic period drama The Handmaiden, has never quite made something like Decision to Leave. However, Park says that he doesn’t have a film genre in mind when beginning a project. “When I make a movie, I don’t necessarily define a genre and then give myself a set of conventions to follow,” explains Park. “But I feel my film is still within the wider scope of what defines a thriller. Even though I didn’t really think of this film as a noir, I did think that this story should have one axis where people follow a detective encountering a case and trying to solve it. At the same time, the other axis is the love story. This structure was in my mind from the beginning.”
As Hae-joon shadows Seo-rae, he seems more interested in finding evidence of remorse than clues for murder. One catches a dash of Rear Window as Hae-joon spies on this regular Miss Lonelyhearts. Seo-rae eats ice cream for dinner night after night and falls asleep while smoking in front of the TV, but she’s attune to the eyes peering in. This attentiveness intrigues her. Whether she’s interested in Hae-joon or simply manipulating him to escape a murder charge is among the film’s many mysteries. Decision to Leave ensures will swirl in viewers’ minds until its haunting final frames.
Brief Encounter and “The Mist”
“Me and my co-writer [Chung Seo-kyung] had an objective of making the process of investigation and the process of these two characters falling in love become completely inseparable,” observes Park. Moreover, Park says that he and Chung used David Lean’s Brief Encounter as a reference for the ambiance of Decision to Leave. The classic story of two strangers connected by passing moments at the train station echoes the understated currents of melancholy and desire in Park’s film. As with Brief Encounter, Decision to Leave is a tale of passing glances and repressed longing.
Park says that Japanese director Mikio Naruse (Yearning, Floating Clouds) is another influence. “His works made me want to learn how to make a film where the characters are trying to hide their feelings, but are quite transparent in the eyes of the audience,” notes Park. Other references include the pop song “The Mist,” covered here by Song Chang-sik. It wafts throughout the misty town that sets the stage for murder, oscillating the tension and fuelling Hae-joon’s obsession.
It’s appropriate that a seemingly innocent song underscores the detective’s infatuation with his unsolved case. Park admits that soundscaping is his own worst obsession as a filmmaker, and Decision to Leave offers an enigmatic, intricately layered design that helps juggle the film’s tonal twists and generic leaps. “Film technology has advanced a lot but sound is not explored enough,” says Park. “I make sure that all the sound, including the music, will be as creative as possible, will be as inspiring as possible, and as influential as possible [to get the story] into the subconscious of the audience.”
If one finds references to classic Hollywood in Decision to Leave, one might better look to Sirk than to Hitchcock. The film is a melodrama with a dark edge. Moody and driven by unexpectedly heightened emotions for a Park film thanks to the complex performances, Decision to Leave is a masterclass in understated cinema. For a filmmaker who made a splash with edgy and often violent works, Park’s latest film is most effective precisely because it withholds his signature dash of blood. Instead, he burrows into the psychological effects of violence and trauma.
“What you see is the result of listening to my characters and what is required of me to make the story,” observes Park. “In order for me to invite the audience to peek into the depths of the characters’ emotions that are hidden outside, it was necessary to avoid violence that was flashy or graphic, which would catch their eyes. I want those eyes to go deep inside. I don’t want anything that can distract my audience’s eyes or linger in the mind.”