In talking about a film centered around unresolved mysteries, Decision To Leave cinematographer Kim Ji-yong reveals himself to be equally inclined to keep his secrets. “I think when you analyse something, you lose what’s beautiful about it,” he says over a Zoom call. “When you watch the movie and feel it, that’s one thing. But when you say it out loud, it seems too simple.”
Directed by Park Chan-wook, Decision To Leave is precisely the kind of morally thorny film he’s become known for over the years. It follows detective Hae-jun (Park Hae-il), assigned to investigate the probable murder of a retired immigration worker, only to gradually discover that he’s falling for his lead suspect, the late man’s wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei). Nothing is as it seems in the film, beginning with Seo-rae’s wallpaper, which alternately looks like either mountains or waves, depending on the lighting (both motifs are central to the film). Given the illicit nature of Hae-jun and Seo-rae’s romance, and the distance they must publicly maintain, they’re framed through window panes and binoculars, seen through screens and reflected in mirrors. The film also plays with time and space, compressing timelines and allowing locations to overlap.
Storyboarding the film took two months, says Kim, who previously shot Korean films such as The Fortress (2017) and Swing Kids (2018) and has worked in the camera department of Parasite (2019) and Okja (2017). “Park and I talked a lot about the visuals and what the film would look like. We talked about two things mostly — being classical and old-fashioned. But there’s no film lab in Korea anymore so it was impossible to shoot on film,” he adds. In the end, the two tried to figure out what aspects of shooting on film they loved and then transposed those ideas onto digital.
Despite the tension at the heart of Decision To Leave, its cinematography is inventive and even playful. Early on, there’s a shot taken from the perspective of the dead man’s eye, which Kim says was the first thing they storyboarded. Another scene midway through the film is viewed through the eye of a fish at a market where Seo-rae and Hae-jun run into each other, a novel take on the idea of a fish-eye lens. Portions of the film unravel from behind cellphone screens as Hae-jun texts Seo-rae. “This actually started as a joke I made,” says Kim. “I told Park, ‘What if we have the POV of a phone?’ And he considered it and said, sure.” The only criteria for the film’s cinematography was that it amount to more than just a series of “fun shots”, the objective being to depict the characters’ emotions and circumstances.
Kim breaks down 6 pivotal scenes from the film:
When Seo-rae and Hae-jun sit across from each other in the interrogation room, their reflections are positioned closer together, hinting at the tenuous bond that will eventually develop between them. When Seo-rae is in focus, her reflection is not. At the same time, Hae-jun’s reflection is in focus, but he isn’t.
That long sequence in the interrogation room is part police procedure, part romance genre — we had to combine both. This is the moment Hae-jun and Seo-rae fall for each other. At the start of the scene, they’re far away from each other, then at the midpoint of the scene, their reflections are close, and by the end, when they look at a photo together, they are physically close in reality. That’s how we planned the scene. I carefully planned the lighting design. We start on a cool day, then it becomes late afternoon and then the light is warm as it turns to night and they have sushi together. When they’re looking at the photograph together and they’re physically close, they’re lit by the headlamp of a passing car, which makes the scene more romantic. There are focus shifts because it’s a long dialogue sequence and we wanted to have something visually interesting.
As Hae-jun watches Seo-rae’s apartment from his car, she begins to infiltrate his thoughts and headspace, which is visually depicted as him entering her physical space. He is both, in his car and in her apartment simultaneously, observing her and talking to her face-to-face in his head even though he’s on the phone with her in actuality.
All of that was in the script. The surveillance scenes are shot from Hae-joon’s perspective, they’re partly in his imagination. He can’t go to her physically, so he watches her from far away. We wanted to depict how much he wanted to be inside her apartment and just feel her and be able to breathe in her smell. We don’t see Seo-rae’s perspective in this scene at all.
This is one of the few times Hae-jun and Seo-rae meet outside of the context of his work and the investigation. The sequence has a dreamy quality to it, mirroring the secretive, illicit nature of their romance.
This scene is meant to be dreamy. Hae-jun falls asleep and then suddenly the audience sees this old temple with a statue. So maybe it is a dream, maybe it’s not, but it’s a sequence I shot to feel a little dreamy. It’s rainy, but it’s also romantic. This is the only one-take sequence in the film. When it’s raining, there’s usually no sun. It’s cool and cloudy. But when we shot this scene, we didn’t have the time to wait for a cloudy day. We shot this on two days and it was sunny on both. So we shot in the shade, whenever the sun was out of view and there were shadows. We kept waiting for the sun to dip down low. Luckily, we didn’t have any sun in that sequence. That was important to me because I didn’t want this scene to look fake. Whenever you see the sun on a rainy day in film, that always makes me feel like that scene is fake. I didn’t want to feel like that for this sequence.
Two timelines converge into one. In the first, Seo-rae stealthily follows her (now) late husband on one of his treks, intending to murder him. In the second, occurring months later, Hae-jun retraces Seo-rae’s steps as part of his investigation into the case. As he reaches the top of the mountain, he comes to understand that Seo-rae pushed her husband off it.
It was really complicated. It’s morning when Seo-rae climbs the mountain to kill her husband. It’s midday when Hae-jun goes there. So we had to illustrate the different times of day and help the audience understand that these events are taking place in two different timelines. But we couldn’t really shoot two different chunks like that because we didn't have time. We had to shoot them back-to-back. We had one camera on Seo-rae and one on Hae-jun. The sun was pretty much the same when we shot it, so we had to change the colour in post production to help the audience understand. When we start the scene, Hae-jun’s timeline is cooler and Seo-rae’s warmer. Midway through, the colour shifts. He becomes warmer and she becomes cool.
Another thing was that we couldn’t really find a mountain. And you can’t go up to a mountain with 60 to 80 crew members. So we built the top of the mountain as a set. We shot it first and then we had to shoot the background in such a way that it matched. It wasn’t easy because the weather also had to match. We went up to the mountain twice and the weather wasn’t the same. So we wound up going up the mountain three times in all. The last time, the third time, we got it.
The second time Seo-rae and Hae-jun meet atop a mountain, it’s nighttime. The scene is lit solely with a lantern he’s holding and with the light from a headlamp she’s wearing.
I wanted that scene to look like a dream sequence. It’s not a dream, it’s a real sequence but I wanted the audience to see it as more dreamy, less realistic. I didn’t want the lighting to be realistic. I couldn’t figure out how to shoot this because I didn’t want any conventional movie light in this scene, I didn’t want just moonlight. I finally came up with the idea of Seo-rae wearing a headlight and Hae-jun having a lantern in his car because he’s a policeman. We talked about it, we made a storyboard of the scene and Park Chan-wook was okay with it, so we used these as our main light sources. We had other minimal lighting on the mountain so that everything could be seen a little more clearly in the dark, but otherwise everything in this scene was lit by just two lanterns. It wasn’t easy, because the actors had to light themselves while we were shooting it, but I like the results.
Seo-rae, knowing Hae-jun’s fixation with unsolved mysteries and having resigned herself to the idea that he fell out of love with her the moment he wrapped up the murder investigation into her late husband, decides to kill herself in a way that he won’t be able to piece together. She hollows out a hole on the beach, and waits for the tide to come in, sealing herself under the sand so that her body won’t be found.
It took us three-and-a-half days to shoot this. We imagined this beach when we made the storyboards but it does not exist. We couldn’t find the ideal beach, so we shot at three different beaches in Korea. One of them is on the Eastern side and another beach is to the West. We spliced all three beaches together in VFX and then covered everything with mist digitally so that it looked like one place.
Another thing I’d like to talk about is the time of the day because this scene happens late in the afternoon. So the sun had to be right on the horizon and the high tide had to come in towards Hae-jun and Seo-rae. We knew that the high tide would only last for two days. If we couldn’t finish this scene in two days, we had to wait for another two-and-a-half months for the next high tide to get that shot. But we couldn’t do that. So we scheduled this very carefully. On the first day, we set up the camera, we knew this was the right time to shoot, the sun was going down, we had five minutes to get the shot we wanted. And then a snowstorm started. So we had to shoot it in the snow, paint all the snowflakes out in VFX, then add in mist. It was hard. The beach scene was great, I like it, but it’s not because of the photography. It looks good because of all these people’s work.