OPINION: Park Chan Wook’s new film isn’t afraid to have smartphones front and centre, and it’s the high-tech update we’ve been waiting for.
After more than a century of seeing our heroes immortalised on celluloid, there are certain objects that just seem inherently cinematic. The curling smoke of a cigarette or the squealing tyres of a sports car lend themselves to the big screen with consummate ease, but one of our everyday staples has sometimes seemed strangely resistant to these charms.
Even though we use our smartphones all the time – even to watch movies on – I’ve found that directors often seem a little reluctant to feature this technology quite so prominently in their movies as you see in real life.
There could be a few different reasons for that. For one thing, filmmakers may not wish to see their movies soon relegated to being a mere product of their time, in the same way we now see the likes of wacky answerphone shenanigans in dated 90s sitcoms. They may be modern for now, but who knows how long it will be until they’re seen as unsalvageably fuddy-duddy.
For another, it’s hard to make a character staring at a static, rather featureless black slab appear to be seductive on the silver screen. More often than not, after all, we go to the cinema for escapism and for visual delight, and it’s hard to replicate that even with the newest and shiniest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy.
Finally, it’s even more likely that smartphones simply reduce the plot possibilities of characters in a movie. How many times have you watched a TV series while anxiously wanting to scream out to the character in peril to tell them to call someone on their phone, or look up a crucial piece of information, or find their location on a map? It takes a talented writer to get around these obstacles, given that such a simple solution was never at hand in previous decades.
That’s why, having recently watched Park Chan Wook’s Decision to Leave, I was refreshed by his portrayal of smartphones in this movie, where the tech almost becomes a character in its own right.
Without giving too much away about the plot, smartphones are always centre stage of this Hitchockian detective drama. They’re used to make calls and write messages, record audio and video, perform language translation, map locations, and even track daily step counts, without ever having to be clunkily introduced; here they actually help the intrigue of the plot rather than hindering it. They’re seamlessly interwoven so as to never feel out of place, constantly crucial to the twists of the story, but only ever as a means of reflecting the characters themselves.
The devices may be in the middle of the screen, or tantalising out of shot, or we may even look through the point-of-view of the screen as a reluctant SMS is haltingly composed, but they’re never used merely as lifeless props, and I think this holds the key to Park’s success; he embraces smartphones as a part of life, where other directors have written them out altogether hoping we wouldn’t notice.
Not everyone is as talented as the Oldboy director of course, and it’s not an easy trick to pull off. What’s more, as acknowledged earlier, in the future we may see films such as this one as being hopelessly old-fashioned, when the smartphone is no longer the vector of so much of our lives and we instead while our hours away in a Metaverse or – god forbid – a Muskverse.
There may be a time when the presence of a smartphone instantly dates a movie to the early twenty-first century, but even if this were to be the case then I would think that the intrigue and aching romance of Decision to Leave would still make it a film for the ages.