Released in 2003, Oldboy is a violent and stylish mystery thriller, loosely based on the popular Japanese manga of the same name. It’s the second installment in director Park Chan-wook’s Revenge Trilogy, following on from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and preceding Lady Vengeance. It tells the story of a man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik). After being kidnapped and held prisoner under mysterious circumstances for 15 years, Dae-su is on a quest for vengeance, as he tries to find out who is responsible for turning his world upside down.
Parasite might have been the first South Korean film to win an Oscar, but Oldboy was arguably the original breakthrough that helped launch South Korean cinema into the global mainstream continuousness. For a film that features torture, extreme violence, and incest, that’s no mean feat.
The legendary (and now unfortunately defunct) distribution label Tartan released the film in the UK as part of their influential Asia Extreme line. Tartan were a cult label and brought films such as Ring, Audition and Battle Royale to the UK for the first time in the early 2000s. They were also responsible for putting a huge dent in my student finances around that time.
Tartan brought Oldboy to the UK on DVD and alongside this mainstream release, director Park Chan-wook also won the Cannes Grand-Prix for the movie in 2004. This really helped put Oldboy on the map. I actually remember hearing about it for the first time in a popular British culture magazine, one which only had a small portion dedicated to movies. For it to feature a Korean film as a recommendation really stood out to me. It also helped that Memories of Murder and A Tale of Two Sisters were released at a similar time, and along with Oldboy, this put the ascendancy of South Korean filmmaking into motion. Films like A Bittersweet Life, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, and Chaser soon followed, with Korean cinema going from strength to strength, all leading to Parasite’s eventual Oscar win 16 years after Oldboy’s initial release.
What Oldboy Means to Us
I can’t remember when or how I first heard of Oldboy (I’m assuming it was Ain’t It Cool News but I can’t be sure) but I do know that when I sat down to watch it on IFC, it was an event. I distinctly remember having hype for it and knowing I had to see every second of it, lest I miss out on something spectacular, and whoever or whatever gave me that feeling beforehand did not undersell its amazingness. I was so enthralled by it, that at around the halfway point, my nose started bleeding and instead of finding something to stop the blood flow, I just took my shirt off and covered my nose. By the time the film was over, my entire shirt was damn near soaked in blood. I actually had to peel the shirt from my face because it had already begun to dry in place like a band-aid. I ruined one of my favorite shirts and I would happily do it to my entire wardrobe to experience that for the first time again.
It’s a rare occurrence watching a movie and knowing within the first fifteen minutes that it’s going to be one of your favorites of all time and twenty years later, it’s still in my top five. There’s nothing quite like Oldboy. It’s a mystery with one of the greatest action scenes ever committed to celluloid, a love story that’s as perverse as it is beautiful, and a villain who’s probably more sympathetic than the hero. Since the who behind the lead character’s fifteen-year incarceration is revealed immediately, the real mystery isn’t who he is and why he locked him up, it’s why did he finally release him. It’s a diabolically delicious revenge plan that is impossible to see coming and when it hits, it leaves a scar. If all this film had to offer was its final twist, it would still be in the all-time great twist endings hall of fame but it’s also 90 minutes of perfection leading up to it. Oldboy is a movie Hollywood clearly wanted to remake because the story was so good but ultimately couldn’t (as the Spike Lee disaster clearly proved) because there are few directors in Hollywood talented enough to improve upon perfection.
I was spoiled about Oldboy pretty early on, and I avoided watching the film for the longest time as a result. I was ready to dismiss it as simply exploitation cinema, a film violent and transgressive for its own sake. That does the film a major disservice. Yes, it’s violent and transgressive, but it’s so much more than that. It’s Oedipus by way of John Woo (or, more accurately, by way of Park Chan-wook). It’s a morality play with hammers. It’s a classic tragedy with live octopi. I think you should watch Oldboy at least twice. The first time through the visceral nature of the film is overwhelming, and you may be left with only memories of brutality and misery. Watching it again you’ll be able to appreciate the emotion of the film, as operatic as it is at times. You may even pick up on mythological touches that Park Chan-wook has peppered throughout the film. Or you may just watch that scene in the hallway and go “holy shit.” It’s a great film, and I’m glad it’s in the Canon. And I’m seriously thinking I need to watch it again.
–Bob Cam Jr.
Continuous take scenes are nothing new to cinema. Perhaps a technique that is overused in modern times, they can be memorable scenes when done right. In Oldboy, the famous corridor scene most certainly fits into that category. As the main character Oh Dae-su tries to leave the private prison where he previously resided, he is set upon by wave after wave of guards and goons. A fierce fight ensues, and armed with only a small hammer, Dae-su repels everything that comes his way.
The scene was shot in one continuous take, with the only editing used to generate a CGI knife. The rest of the action happened in real-time. The original storyboard of the scene involved several differing shots, with the camera changing between close-ups of Dae-su’s face, over-the-shoulder shots of the gang, frames of fists clashing in mid-air, and overhead shots of the melee. On set, Park made the wise decision to change direction.
It took seventeen takes over the space of three days to perfect, but the final product was definitely worth the effort. It’s a breathlessly raw and intense scene, with the fighting feeling fierce, cumbersome, and most importantly, real.
One of the more infamous scenes from Oldboy sees Oh Dae-su enter a sushi restaurant and proceed to eat a live octopus. Something of a Korean delicacy, in reality consumers will usually be met with chopped baby octopus tentacles still wriggling on the plate. Here however, Dae-su eats the entire octopus in pretty much one mouthful.
For most Western viewers (including me) it’s a disgusting scene, as the tentacles squirm around the actor’s face. On my first watch, I assumed there was some sort of CGI being used. But alas no, the octopus was very real, with four of them having to be used to get the right take. Extraordinarily, lead actor Choi Min-sik is a Buddhist and vegetarian and, according to director Park Chan-wook, this led to him saying a prayer for each octopus before he consumed it.
It might be hard to watch, but it’s a scene that adds to the grueling intensity of an already relentless film.
A remastered version of Oldboy is set for re-release on the big screen later this year, twenty years after the original release. It has spanned two remakes, one an unofficial Bollywood release in 2006, the other Spike Lee’s 2013 attempt. It is still considered one of the greatest world cinema releases of all time (and also one of the greatest films full stop), with the infamous twist ranking highly in any best-of list on the internet. It holds up incredibly well on a rewatch and remains the first film I will recommend to anyone looking to get into world cinema.
Have you seen Oldboy? What did you think of the film? Got a fun fact or piece of trivia on the making of the film? Share it in the comments below!