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South Korea's official entry to the Oscars is a murder-mystery-romance

: [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we mistakenly refer to Kim So-hui as Park So-hui.]


South Korean cultural exports are on a roll, raking in top awards in recent years for movies, TV dramas and music. The country has submitted its official candidate for best international feature film at the Academy Awards this year, a darkly humorous combination murder mystery and romance. NPR's Anthony Kuhn spoke to the film's acclaimed director and lead actor.


ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: "Decision To Leave" starts out with common murder mystery ingredients. A rock climber falls to his death. His widow seems unbothered by it. A detective on the case falls for the widow. The beguiling widow, Seo-rae, is played by Chinese actress Tang Wei. Lead actor Park Hae-il plays the skilled sleuth and dutiful husband, Hae-joon.

PARK HAE-IL: (Through interpreter) I see more of it as two different people trying to fill the vast emptiness they have and trying to express love while they're trying to lean on each other to be able to be whole again.

KUHN: The detective becomes obsessed with his suspects, and it begins to erode his composure and professional judgment. Director Park Chan-wook explains how he melded the movie's twin themes into one.

PARK CHAN-WOOK: (Through interpreter) And unraveling that mystery is the perfect way to phrase the love story of this film.

KUHN: Only when the mystery is finally solved is the lovers' fate revealed. Seoul-based film critic Park So-hui says that director Park is depicting a romance that is, on one level, doomed to fail but, on another, epic and eternal.

PARK SO-HUI: (Through interpreter) The only way the two people can meet is for Seo-rae to become the subject of Hae-joon's investigation. You can criticize Seo-rae's actions, but inside the world of Park Chan-wook's film, you also see them as desperate expressions of passionate love.

KUHN: The love affair is seen through director Park's noir-tinted lens and sometimes creepy perspective. We see through the eyes of a dead man as ants climb on his face. There are surreal touches, such as the detective imagining he's right next to his suspect, even though he's watching her from his car with binoculars. The film has a vintage look, and Park said he would have preferred to have the pair exchange letters written on parchment. But instead, they text each other on smartphones.

PARK C: (Through interpreter) It's not just about reflecting the life of a modern person, but it also became an important artistic device within the film. And what is more important here is that you don't lose the romanticism in the use of these technologies.


PARK H: (As Jang Hae-joon, speaking Korean).

KUHN: In a rain-swept wooden temple, for example, we hear the detective's voice memos recorded as he surveilled his suspect, as if his voice is in our heads. We watch in real time as the characters' text messages pop up on each other's screens, and they all feel intimate. As the story progresses, the twists and turns get wilder. At first, widow Seo-rae keeps us guessing. Is she the victim or culprit? But her alibi starts to crumble, and we see how she manipulates the evidence, and with it, her lovestruck gumshoe, and the viewers' understanding of the truth. In one scene, Seo-rae tells the detective how she longs for him to watch, follow and interrogate her.


TANG WEI: (As Song Seo-rae, through interpreter) Commendable men like you won't marry me. For such a man to speak to me, something on the scale of murder has to happen.

KUHN: "Decision To Leave" is a departure from Park's previous hit films, including "Oldboy" and "Lady Vengeance," which have gotten R ratings for explicit violence and sex. Park suggests that in his new film, these themes are felt but not seen.

PARK C: (Through interpreter) At the core of this film, the wild violence or the deep eroticism exists through the emotions of this film.

KUHN: Kang Yoo-jung is a film critic at Kangnam University just outside Seoul. She says that in Park Chan-wook's films, including "Decision To Leave," we see one of the ingredients behind the phenomenal global success of Korean cinema in recent years.

KANG YOO-JUNG: (Through interpreter) Korean filmmakers are good at rendering characteristics of specific genres in their movies, but they also put effort into adding their own colors.

KUHN: Park is preparing to apply his unique style to a number of genres, which reportedly include horror and science fiction flicks and a Western. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 7, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
In this story, we mistakenly refer to Kim So-hui as Park So-hui.
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

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