The Echo of ‘Oldboy’ in ‘Monkey Man’

In the relentless pursuit of revenge, humans are driven to extremes, revealing their most potent, vulnerable, and oftentimes violent selves. This exploration of human extremes has long been a cornerstone of human storytelling, from ancient myths and religious texts to Shakespearean dramas and modern cinema. This profound transformation is found at the core of countless beloved action films, where characters are propelled by their desire for vengeance to heal wounds of their past by any means necessary. In Dev Patel’s directorial debut Monkey Man (2024), this central motivation is nothing short of omnipresent. Through every shattering of glass and every bloodied fight sequence, the film inches the viewer closer to a theoretical sense of justice. While the path toward revenge is nothing foreign to the genre, Monkey Man is unique in its deeply personal and cultural perspective.

The most individualistic aspects of Monkey Man are found in its beautifully crafted depiction of Indian life and culture, a perspective so rarely seen on a scale as large as the mainstream American film industry. In fact, the film highlights perspectives that are often overlooked even in their own country’s popular culture, such as the thriving community of transgender and hijras people or the lives of lower-caste workers. Instead of relying solely on the spectacle of large budget action sequences to resonate with audiences, Monkey Man’s focus on the development of its characters and allowing a deeper understanding of their motives gives room for viewers to develop authentic connections to the story unfolding in front of them. Patel’s approach to crafting a narrative that is both deeply personal and culturally rich ultimately gives otherwise naïve audiences a glimpse into Indian life and the complex joys and struggles within it. 

Nevertheless, the film is certainly not safe from comparison. In the weeks following Monkey Man’s release, many fans and critics were quick to draw comparisons to the popular action film series John Wick. Countless reviews of the film describe Patel’s debut as the “Indian version of John Wick,” which seemingly stems from the very familiar sense of trauma-turned-revenge story present in both films. While the similarities in motivation are undeniable, comparative critiques of these two films fail to delve deeper than the surface level. To assert Monkey Man’s unnamed protagonist as an “Indian John Wick” is to dismiss the nuance that comes from Dev Patel’s intrinsically Indian script and his true cinematic references and inspirations.

While comparisons to the John Wick series are evidently inevitable, they overlook the rich, multi-faceted influences that shape Monkey Man. The film’s inspirations stem from a different cinematic tradition–one that is deeply rooted in the powerful, often brutal storytelling of South Korean cinema. In an interview with “Inside Total Film Podcast“, Patel expresses his admiration for many classic South Korean action films, stating “the OG guys – the brooding men wearing the suits and doing that amazing action – were the Korean auteurs. Everything from Oldboy to The Man from Nowhere, to A Bittersweet Life to I Saw the Devil.” Over the past few decades, South Korean cinema – and South Korean action cinema in particular – has emerged as a powerhouse in the world of filmmaking. Known for their distinctive ability to blend traditional South Korean storytelling with inspiration from other realms of visual storytelling, it is no surprise that Dev Patel takes inspiration from the oftentimes mysteriously inventive plotlines and brutal fight scenes found in South Korean action films. Parallels from each of these named films can be found throughout Monkey Man, the most discernible being Park Chan-Wook’s 2003 action revenge film Oldboy

Choi Min-sik in Oldboy (2003)

The traces of Oldboy found throughout Monkey Man are more than just a matter of stylistic choice, but a profound narrative decision that speaks to a wider theme in international cinema. South Korean films have a unique ability to blend intense emotional depth with visceral action, offering audiences an experience many American action films struggle to replicate. This echoing of a deeply cathartic style of storytelling is significant as it elevates Monkey Man beyond a mere action film, immersing it within a tradition that challenges viewers to confront complex emotions and societal issues. Oldboy chronicles the abduction of Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik), an obnoxious drunkard who consistently finds himself tied up with the police. After being bailed out by a friend, Dae-Su is taken from the street and imprisoned in a cell where he is held captive for the next 15 years. Following his sudden and unexplained release, the film takes audiences along as Dae-Su seeks to understand the reason he was captured and ultimately get revenge against the people responsible. It’s in this journey that the parallels to the story of Monkey Man begin to emerge, both on and off-screen.

On the surface level, similarities in the presentation of these two films can be easily traced. Both films’ posters adorned striking images of their protagonists cloaked in black and red, colors that evoke the feelings of violence and rage present in both of their respective stories. In fact, both protagonists are shown wearing suits on these posters, playing into the popular “professional” characterization of leading men in action films. Despite being presented this way, audiences will come to find that the films’ protagonists are more of the outlier types, men who defy expectations of the “professional” archetype and oftentimes find themselves going against the rules of society by engaging in acts of gambling, fighting, drinking, and getting into trouble with law enforcement. While these similarities in the film’s respective marketing and characterization choices may seem superficial, it’s clear that Monkey Man is attempting to provide audiences with characters that evoke similar complexities to those found in many of South Korea’s most beloved action stories. 

Depictions of intense violence are a hallmark of South Korean cinema, and this sort of fearless approach to filmmaking significantly influenced Dev Patel’s willingness to portray horrific scenes in Monkey Man to a wider audience without restraint. Perhaps the most famous sequence in Oldboy shows an observational wide shot of Dae-Su violently fighting his way through a corridor and onto an elevator, which is similarly one of the primary settings of Monkey Man’s most intense and grotesque fight scenes. Although not unheard of outside of these two films, the decision to place a fight scene in such a claustrophobic environment such as an elevator ultimately reflects on the style of action filmmaking both Park Chan-Wook and Dev Patel engage in. Both films are unapologetic in their commitment to showing an up close look at extreme violence, but not without reason. In both the aforementioned fight sequences and others found throughout both films, the directors are using violence carried out by their protagonists to convey feelings that could only be felt by a man unjustly imprisoned for almost two decades or a child who was forced to watch his mother murdered in front of him. While certainly jarring to some, this willingness of South Korean storytellers to shock audiences with horror is something that clearly resonated with Dev Patel and carried over into his debut film.

Further similarities between the two films can be found in their overarching messages about wealth and class in their respective countries. South Korean cinema is renowned for its incisive exploration of excessive wealth and class structures, exposing the many injustices that lower-class individuals face in life, work, and relationships. This thematic focus serves as subliminal undercurrent in both films, which are committed to culturally contextualizing their stories within real-life scenarios. Oldboy, which takes place in a time of great financial crisis and income inequality in South Korea, is quite obvious in its depiction of wealth. The film’s antagonist, Woo-Jin, is frequently shown dressed in a considerably much nicer designer suit than Dae-Su wears, and is almost always followed around by his personal assistant. After Dae-Su’s release, Woo-Jin is continuously shown asking, “How did you find life in your wider prison?” referring to the primary setting of the film, the city of Seoul. Although Monkey Man takes place in a fictional city based on Mumbai, the film is not afraid to address very realistic wealth inequalities found in both India and other major countries around the globe. The film’s narrator, or “kid” as he is referred to in the credit sequence, states, “In this city, the rich don’t see us as people,” which is a sentiment that is demonstrated throughout the film as lower-caste members of society clash with law enforcement over the unjust seizing of land. Whether successful or not, both of the films’ protagonists’ fight against the elite of society allows for a deeper, intrinsic meaning to be born from their violent stories. While it is unclear whether Patel’s decision to include underlying messages about the unjust caste structure in India stems directly from his South Korean influences, the inclusion of such is significant in that it allows Monkey Man to become more than just a fictional revenge story detached from reality.  

Monkey Man also reflects parts of Oldboy’s unexpected ending, a trend that has seemingly become popular with contemporary Korean auteurs. At the end of Oldboy’s story, the viewer’s understanding of “good” and “bad” is completely subverted when informed of the troubled past actions of Dae-Su that ultimately lead to the unfortunate suicide of the sister who audiences believed to be the “bad guy,” Woo-Jin. In an attempt to save his once estranged daughter and seek forgiveness, Dae-Su cuts out his tongue. While this does not lead to his death, it certainly can be viewed as a metaphorical end to Dae-Su’s life, as he ultimately realizes that it is his own actions and words that led to his downfall. Monkey Man similarly ends in what audiences can only assume is the protagonist’s death, despite not being shown on screen. The unexpected and ambiguous death of the narrator in the final moments of the film is certainly an effective strategy to shock audiences and subvert their expectations, which is a tactic that Patel finds is done best in South Korean cinema. 

By reflecting elements of South Korean action cinema, Monkey Man distinguishes itself from the formulaic patterns of contemporary Hollywood revenge narratives. Patel’s focus on the cultural depiction of Indian life and the nuanced development of characters and motives, such as his portrayal of disenfranchised communities in India, set his film apart. The emotional depth and realism added by the intense, horrific violence inspired by South Korean films like Oldboy further elevate the narrative past a run of the mill high budget action film and allow for a deeper understanding of the story. This approach allows Patel to craft a story that is both culturally rich and thematically complex, challenging the conventions of mainstream action films. 

Reducing Dev Patel’s work on Monkey Man to merely an “Indian version of John Wick” would not only be a disservice to the film but also to the profound understanding and appreciation that Patel holds for classic South Korean action cinema (and cinema in general). By drawing inspiration from the rich tapestry of South Korean films, and Oldboy in particular, Patel infuses the story with a deeper significance. This homage creates a dialogue that will ultimately enrich the viewing experience and encourage action cinema audiences to further explore works similar to the ones Patel is most inspired by. Patel’s debut transcends surface-level comparisons, offering a deeply personal and culturally nuanced narrative. Through its visceral fight scenes, complex characters, and commentary on societal issues, Monkey Man reveals the raw strength, vulnerability, and capacity for violence inherent in the pursuit of revenge.

Written by Jake Fittipaldi

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