February 4, 2023

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Park Chan-wook on ‘decision to leave’

6 min read

Most of the world Korean entertainment is known through superstar pop music performers like BTS and Black Pink. Then, with “Squid Game,” the world fell for Korean dramas. And thanks to Bong Joon Ho and his “Parasite” Oscar-winner, the planet learned more about the powerhouse of Korean cinema. The skill of the Korean film industry is hardly new. Bong, along with the likes of Kim Ji-woon (“A Bittersweet Life”) and the multihyphenate Park Chan-wook are part of a group of major directors who emerged at the turn of the millennium and are at the fore. For nearly two decades, they have given Korean cinema an impeccable reputation for style, substance and smart storytelling.

After a stellar run on the festival circuit and a successful worldwide release, with his latest drama, “Decision to Live,” shortlisted for Oscar’s International Film, it’s Park’s turn in the spotlight.

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

“To be honest with you, I didn’t set out trying to do a modern depiction of the noir genre, I wanted to start from that genre and then go beyond it,” says Park.

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

Dan Doperalski for Variety

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

“Before making this movie, I thought to myself, if I tell everyone that I’m making another love story, will they laugh at me?” Park said. “I brought it on myself because I always had too much violence and sex in my movies. Hence, people neglected them as love stories.

Park adds: “So I realized that I had to release that veil for people to see the romance story inside. I had to tone down the violence and nudity that occupied people [perceptions] of my film And then people will finally see the romance.”

Revealing the breakdown of his “decision”. “When we reach the second part of the story, there is no more suspense or suspense. “There’s no telling whether or not this woman killed her husband, because it’s too obvious,” Park explained. “At that point it’s no longer a film noir or a mystery film. Now the question arises, why did the woman move to a new city and chose to go to the city where the detectives were? [also] Moved?'”

The film opened with a bang at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, with Park winning the Best Director award. He’s no stranger to Cannes, competing there four times and winning awards for “Thirst” and “Oldboy.”

Park says that “making decisions” was a form of therapy. “While I was working [TV miniseries] London’s ‘Little Drummer Girl’, I’ve been abroad for so long. Directing six episodes there was physically excruciating,” he recalls. “By the time we got to post-production, psychologically speaking, I was very tired and homeless.”

While in the UK, Park returned to her screenwriting partner Chung Seo-kyung, whom she met on “Lady Vengeance” and with whom she collaborated on “The Handmaiden”, “Thirst” and “I’m a Cyborg”. did Their highly developed ability to finish each other’s thoughts and sentences meant that Chung also made unexpected contributions to Park’s other films, including his only English-language effort, “Stoker.”

Chung “took her family to London for their vacation, but to make me feel better,” Park admits shyly.

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

Dan Doperalski for Variety

With “Decision,” Park again delves into the “other” — Chinese actor Tang plays an immigrant, giving the film a subtext of pan-Asian migration, identity politics, and the history of subjugation in the region. Asian filmmakers are increasingly exploring these issues, especially in Korea, with series like “Pachinko.” A recent wave of films made in Korea by foreign-based Asian directors, including Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul,” He Shuming’s “Azuma” and Kore-eda Hirokazu’s “Broker,” also deal with identity issues.

It’s an exciting time for Korean art and Korean filmmakers.

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

“I didn’t really consider my colleagues as rivals. I don’t know what they are thinking. But for me personally, I think they are just people who inspire me. I have a lot of respect for them. And on top of that, I guess they helped me. Since ‘Parasite’ has done so well overseas, it has helped many Korean films gain more attention.”

As a producer, consultant and short-film maker, Park works with many filmmakers, including younger brother Park Chan-kyung (Berlin Golden Bear-winning short “Night Fishing”), “Joint Security Area” screenwriter Lee Moo-young and Lee. Kyoung-mi — Park wrote and produced her first film “Crush and Blush”.

Is there anything special in this generation of Korean filmmakers?

“I thought a lot about this question because we all have different personalities. If I ask myself, what do they have in common? I remember first things first [is that] They are all cinephiles who love watching movies, especially compared to previous generations,” Park said. 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, they are in Korea. I personally don’t watch many movies or watch them more than once,” he says with a laugh.

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

The series, based on the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Tan Nguyen, centers on a North Vietnamese mole embedded in the South Vietnamese army. But when Teal is deported to the United States, he sticks with the local South Vietnamese community, eventually returning to Vietnam to fight the Communists.

Downey Jr., Susan Downey and Amanda Burrell also executive produce with Neve Fichman and Kim Lee.

“Working with Robert – he’s such an amazing actor and such an energetic person and a joy to be around. He’s been really great to work with. Also, Robert’s wife, Susan, is a smart woman and a smart producer. It’s been a pleasure working with her. And he helped me a lot,” she says.

The Korean Wave looks far from losing any steam.

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