Park Chan-wook: ‘Too much violence and nudity would have overwhelmed the audience’

‘Even applying lotion to someone’s hand can become very erotic’  (Provided by Organic Publicity)
‘Even applying lotion to someone’s hand can become very erotic’ (Provided by Organic Publicity)

Back in 2001, before shooting began on the film Joint Security Area, Park Chan-wook gave a toast. His movie, about soldiers who forge a friendship across the border separating North and South Korea, went against the National Security Act. “I might have gone to prison,” Park tells me as casually as someone recalling how they might have gone to the cinema. At the time, though, a little liquid courage was necessary.

His fans can relate. You could say that preparing yourself to watch a Park Chan-wook movie might also involve a strong drink or two. How else to brace for the impact? Park, now 59, makes films that leave a mark. There was his 2004 international breakthrough OldBoy, with the now notorious scene in which its doomed hero inhales a live octopus (the film took home the Grand Prix at Cannes). Meanwhile, his 2016 thriller The Handmaiden is universally hailed as an erotic masterpiece, with enough explicit scenes to warrant the title. These films and his others, each as visceral as the last, have established Park as an idiosyncratic director with a soft spot for blood spray and full-frontal nudity. Quentin Tarantino is a fan.

Decision to Leave, then, comes as a shock. Awarded the director’s prize at Cannes this year, Park’s latest is conspicuously lacking in his trademark sex and violence. In Busan, Hae-joon (Park Hae-il) is a mild-mannered detective who keeps wet wipes in his pocket. When a man falls from a cliff to his death, Hae-joon is brought in to investigate his beautiful widow Seo Rae, played with affecting ambiguity by a career-best Tang Wei, best known for her taboo-breaking turn in Ang Lee’s 2007 film Lust, Caution.

On paper, the plot evokes Basic Instinct with top notes of Vertigo, but this being a Park production, events spiral from there. To say more would spoil a dazzling denouement – but what Decision to Leave proves is that Park’s films have always been about more than the gore. Somehow, without so much as a severed finger or a bare bum, the director has conjured up one of his most stirring films. It turns out blood and sex do not a Park Chan-wook film make.

It was a conscious decision to shirk those tendencies of his, explains Park. He was thinking of the viewers. “If there’s too much violence and nudity, it would completely overwhelm the audience and dominate their impression of the film.” Park knows – and to an extent, he understands – that it can be hard for viewers to notice the quivering core of his work when it is surrounded, as it often is, by soft flesh and exposed bones. With Decision to Leave, Park takes a scalpel to the body of the film, cutting away at all of the excess until all we can see is the heart. “I tried to avoid too much stimulation so that the audience could really focus and read into the small things, like the trembling of an eye.”

In a film devoid of loud moments, even the quietest ones resonate. It’s why, without so much as a single bosom heaving on screen, Decision to Leave is very sexy – as sexy as we’ve come to expect from the man behind The Handmaiden. For a film in which the apex of sexual tension is sharing ChapStick, “even applying lotion to someone’s hand can become very erotic”, says Park.

He explains it like this: “Imagine a film that shows only close-ups. Unless there is an even more extreme close-up, the audience will feel nothing about those close-ups. Whereas if the film had a certain distance, then all of a sudden there’s a medium shot, even just the bust, that will feel as strong as an extreme close-up of an eye or something.” Take the scene where Hae-joon and Seo Rae are in the back of the police car, handcuffed to one another. “They start sharing the same breath, pacing together. It makes your heart beat a little faster.”

The risk has paid off. Reviews for Decision to Leave are not only glowing but afford the film’s emotional drive a focus that is seldom seen in relation to Park’s work. Does he see it as a shame that it took something of a stylistic overhaul to get to this point? “I have no regrets,” he smiles.

Park Hae-il and Tang Wei as Hae-joon and Seo Rae in ‘Decision to Leave’ (2022) (Organic PR/Mubi)
Park Hae-il and Tang Wei as Hae-joon and Seo Rae in ‘Decision to Leave’ (2022) (Organic PR/Mubi)

It’s hard to imagine that Park, gracious and genial as he is, would survive in the cutthroat landscapes he renders in his films. Decision to Leave may be the exception. I suspect that inside the worn charcoal satchel at his feet is a packet of wet wipes. He is wearing a layered outfit – a navy linen jacket over a navy T-shirt – ideal for autumn. Beneath his grey trousers are grey socks. He gives long answers, often looking into the distance as he does so, or grasping at his chest in an attempt to physically convey what he is feeling. While he waits for the translator to relay his answers, Park takes sips of black coffee but otherwise remains completely attentive to the way his words are being expressed.

Park was born in 1963, the eldest of two sons, in Seoul, when South Korea was under military rule. He was raised Catholic and attended mass every week. One day, the local priest told his mother that she should send him to a seminary; he’d make a good clergyman. Today, Park is an atheist. Speaking about his decision to leave the Church, Park is characteristically undramatic. “I was born into a Catholic family so that wasn’t my choice,” he laughs. “It wasn’t like any enlightenment hit me and I realised I had to abandon my familial religion. I grew up, and either I would continue doing what I had been doing or do something different. From the beginning, I guess I didn’t have strong faith, so I decided not to continue.”

Choi Min-sik and Kang Hye-jung as Dae-su Oh and Mi-do in ‘OldBoy’ (2004) (Moviestore/Shutterstock)
Choi Min-sik and Kang Hye-jung as Dae-su Oh and Mi-do in ‘OldBoy’ (2004) (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Religion has no doubt influenced his films, though. “Subconsciously, of course,” Park says. “I had grown sensitive toward concepts like sin or feeling guilty, owning our sins, our soul’s redemption and saviour.” The art of Catholicism also captivated him. They played Mozart at misa (mass), and as a boy he saw the works of El Greco and Hieronymus Bosch, whose vivid vision of hell depicts sinners straddling giant knives and being flayed across harp strings. “I’m sure that had an impact on my soul and on my taste.”

Park’s father was an architecture professor, specialising in colour (“You can see the impact of that in my films, how colour plays a critical role”) and an amateur painter. Park and his brother were regularly taken on trips to galleries. On his mother’s side, his great-grandfather was a great art collector. “Not great!” Park corrects his translator with a laugh. “I can go back to my blood lineage and see there was a big interest in art in general.”

In 2011, he and his brother, Park Chan-kyong, a media artist, shot a short film called Night Fishing on an iPhone. Park liked the idea of being a sibling directing duo, like the Coen brothers! They could call themselves PARKing CHANce. His brother was less enthusiastic about the idea.

Park went to study philosophy at Seoul’s prestigious Sogang University in the mid-Eighties, a time of political upheaval and student demonstrations. There, he became involved in photography and attended the university’s film club, which showed bootleg VHS tapes of foreign films. Back then, it seemed implausible to Park that Korean films would be the benchmark for cinema that they are today. That a Korean film could take home the Oscar for Best Picture felt ridiculous. “I could never have imagined Korean pop culture would go beyond Korean borders and really win the hearts of the world.”

When Park first started making films, his ambitions were almost unbelievably modest. “I just thought that it would be nice if I could make a film that wasn’t so bad in comparison to the US or the UK.”

There is a very strong sense that [the North and South] belong together. That we are one people. It’s rooted in our subconscious

By the time OldBoy had awakened the international community to Park’s charm, he was already a big name back home thanks to Joint Security Area. “I really had to have a strong determination and courage to make it,” recalls Park, explaining exactly how his political thriller was in violation of South Korea’s National Security Act, which still forbids the “positive” representation of North Korean people. As a child, Park was taught that they were “demons and monsters”. Through his school years, he would regularly participate in “speech contests, poster-drawing contests, and slogan-making contests that precisely attacked North Korea”.

At the time he was making JSA, Park says the National Security Act was “very strongly implemented”. He adds, “There’s room for interpretation in those articles, but basically the article states that if you describe the North in a positive way then you can be imprisoned.” Park pauses. “But ‘positive’... How do you interpret that? What exactly does it mean to positively describe the North?” He concedes, however, that had the government wanted to punish him for making JSA, there were definitely legal grounds to do so. But against all odds, including the very real threat of prison, JSA was a commercial success. The movie became the highest-grossing film in Korea at the time.

“In the end, of course, nothing happened,” he says. “By the time my film was released, the relationship between the two states had thawed. A summit between North and South Korea had created a very progressive mood in favour of the North.” Much greater than his fear of prison was his fear that JSA “would be viewed as if I had taken advantage of the positive mood, rather than that I had the courage to make the film in the first place”, he laughs.

Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as Lady Hideko and Sook-hee in ‘The Handmaiden’ (2016) (Shutterstock)
Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri as Lady Hideko and Sook-hee in ‘The Handmaiden’ (2016) (Shutterstock)

After JSA, Park witnessed a new type of film emerging onto the scene. “It’s almost like a unique genre featuring South Koreans and North Koreans getting together. Now, every year we see a film that plays with this premise.” A cynic might say that JSA simply proved there was money to be made peddling that particular storyline, but Park believes something deeper is at play.

“What this new genre shows is that in South Korea – and I’m sure it’s the same in North Korea – even though there’s a difference in ideology or system, and despite the military tension between the two states, individually as people, we want to be together. There is a very strong sense that we belong together. That we are one people. It’s rooted in our subconscious,” says Park. “And the more hostile these two states become, the stronger the desire on an individual level, that we want reconciliation.” He points to the success of films and TV shows like the hit Korean romcom series Crash Landing on You as proof of his point. “All of this comes from our desire to be connected together.”

It can’t be a coincidence that the Korean films and TV shows that make it big outside their borders often have one theme in common: class struggle. But perhaps the better phrase here is all-out warfare. Films such as Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar winner Parasite and TV shows like Hawng Dong-hyuk’s Netflix smash hit Squid Game evoke a bruised and bloody image of late capitalism on a scale rarely broached in American or UK films. In Park’s oeuvre, it’s Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) that deals with class most explicitly – but look closely and you’ll see it in all his work, quietly driving the narrative in its own way.

Director Park behind the scenes shooting his erotic masterpiece ‘The Handmaiden’ (Moho/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Director Park behind the scenes shooting his erotic masterpiece ‘The Handmaiden’ (Moho/Kobal/Shutterstock)

To Park, the interest makes sense for two reasons. Firstly, “the class issue is quite pronounced in Korea compared to other countries”, he says. “Even though it’s a problem globally, Korea is to me a special case because we experienced compressed economic growth and so we neglected the welfare system. We have a weak welfare system – except for universal medical insurance – and the gap between the poor and rich is quite wide.”

The second reason is the internet. “Internet penetration is huge in Korea. Before the era of the internet, the poor people would be among themselves, and take their reality as their life, and not really know what it’s like outside their own society. But now with access to the internet, they see what kind of things rich people do, what they enjoy, what their lives look like, which engenders huge pain in them. It’s what we call relative deprivation. You feel you lose something relative to others who have things, right?”

He exhales. “It’s becoming more and more problematic in Korea and that’s why we are seeing more artists who have a high sensitivity toward this issue. And of course, America and the UK, they experience these things too, so it’s almost universal.”

To speak with Park and not ask about OldBoy feels like sacrilege. Everyone remembers their first time watching OldBoy; that feeling when its twist finally unfurls itself to you. Undoubtedly, it’s his most iconic film – but is it his best? Park lets out a big, open-throated laugh. “I can’t line my babies up like that!” he replies, still mid-chuckle. What he will say, though, is that OldBoy is special because it taught him a lesson. “It made a statement: in order for us to find the right answer, you have to explore the right question.” The hero of OldBoy was plagued by the wrong obsession: it wasn’t a question of why he was locked up for 15 years – but why he was let go. “Without asking the right question, there is no right answer.”

‘Decision to Leave’ will be released by Mubi in cinemas on 21 October