This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Andy English.
Director: Chan-wook Park
Screenwriters: Chan-wook Park, Chun-hyeong Lim, Jo-yun Hwang
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-Tae Yoo, Hye-jeong Kang
Korean auteur Chan-wook Park’s fifth film, and the second in his Vengeance Trilogy, follows the story of Dae-su Oh, a middle aged man who disappears while on a drunken night out, the night of his daughter’s birthday. He awakes to find himself a prisoner in a windowless room. Held in the same room for fifteen years, given no reason for his incarceration and with only a television for company, he watches helplessly as TV news reports tell of his wife’s murder, and how he has been wrongly accused and presumed guilty in the eyes of the public. Then, as unexpectedly as he was taken and with no explanation, Dae-su is released. Through a series of bizarre events he learns he has but a limited amount of time to find his life’s tormentor and learn the reason for his wife’s murder and his own imprisonment.
Seventeen years since its release, Oldboy remains Chan-wook Park’s most recognisable film. The image of Min-sik Choi’s vengeful and smirking Dae-su, brandishing a hammer, ready to go into battle, is immediately recognisable worldwide. Indeed, the one shot corridor battle scene has become iconic. Filmed in profile, the camera crawls along the length of the corridor as a brutal and unblinking fight unfolds. Fans of the Marvel TV series ‘Daredevil’ will be very familiar with its own homage corridor battle scene, even using the same colour palette as Oldboy. The original scene evokes memories of the ‘one against many’ brawls in the films of Bruce Lee, particularly Way Of The Dragon. But unlike Bruce Lee, whose display of martial arts mastery was balletic, Oldboy is an ugly, blood stained, street fighting, nay corridor fighting brawl.
The theme of perception plays an important role in the film. It is about how an insignificant, throwaway moment for one person can be a life shattering, never ending destructive cycle of pain and anguish to another, as was also considered in Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Hidden (Cache). It is no coincidence during an extended flashback sequence that takes place in Dae-su’s old childhood school, the buildings that characters race through resemble a landscape of entwining staircases that could be taken directly from an Escher painting. In Oldboy, there is no direct and easy path to any denouement and there is no such thing as an all-encompassing reality. Reality is what each character makes and harbours. The question is, which reality will prevail?
As Oldboy is one of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy films, it’s no surprise that vengeance is central to its narrative. However, like the other films in the trilogy, the question of who is seeking vengeance is not always clear, much like in Christopher Nolan’s breakout film of 2000, Memento. There, Guy Pearce’s character Leonard believes he is on a mission to avenge his wife’s death. But, is he just a puppet on a malevolent benefactor’s strings, unknowingly working to a hidden and unknown agenda?
The performances are wonderfully stylised in Oldboy. From grotesque prison guard thugs, to the sophisticated, brash and arrogant Woo-jin Lee, played with great bravado by Ji-Tae Yoo. Many of the cast will be familiar to those who have seen the other films in the trilogy. Chan-wook Park relies upon a loyal nucleus of actors, like many other great directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Martin Scorsese. But the main plaudits must go to Min-sik Choi’s performance as Dae-su Oh. He grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and demands their full attention. It is the role of a lifetime and he does not waste any opportunity to draw the viewer’s sympathy, humour, disdain and even disgust with a powerful performance.
The direction is also heavily stylised and operatic in its approach. The camera frequently glides across the actors at the start of a scene, frozen almost in tableau, allowing the audience to acclimatise to the set-up, before exploding into action. Many scenes are observed from overhead, giving a sense the protagonists are playing out some predetermined fate, evoking the climactic scene in Taxi Driver when the camera floats away from De Niro’s Travis Bickle, his questionable redemption having been achieved. The cinematography is as inventive as anything you will see in mainstream cinema, drawing comparisons with Jean Pierre Jeunet, Takashi Miike and even the earlier films of Terry Gilliam.
The film was not without controversy when released, particularly with many western audiences who were not comfortable with a scene involving a live Octopus being eaten. In no way condoning this choice, there has never been the same amount of protest and indignation leveled towards Coppola and Apocalypse Now, which infamously uses the killing of a cow during the climax of the film.
Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy was one of the main staples in a ‘Korean New Wave’ of cinema including Bong-joon Ho’s The Host and more recently Sang-ho Yeon’s Train To Busan, which has forged a large worldwide audience and attracted the attention of Hollywood in the form of the inevitable, and inferior remake of Oldboy (2013), directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin. More significant is the migration of some of these filmmakers to Hollywood, with such movies as Bong-joon Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), Okja (2017) and the Oscar winning Parasite (2019).
Oldboy is equally Greek and Jacobean tragedy filtered through post-modern sensibilities and aesthetics. It is an ultra-violent, challenging film to watch with heavy Oedipal undertones that many will find uneasy and understandably difficult to accept. It is, seventeen years following its release, still a striking and undeniably entertaining modern day film about revenge, forbidden love and the dire consequences of supposedly insignificant actions for others.
Written by Andy English
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