“Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” – Bong Joon-ho.
Interest in the South Korean entertainment industry has skyrocketed recently, from Bong Joon-ho’s satirical masterpiece Parasite sweeping the Oscars in 2020, to the immensely popular thriller Squid Game shattering Netflix records. With a second season announced for Squid Game to debut in late 2023 at the earliest, and an ever-growing sphere of influence on mainstream cinema, the hype surrounding South Korean screen media is reaching fever pitch.
Back in the early 2000s, though, foreign cinema was still considered a peripheral interest, with the work of international directors largely ‘othered’ and overshadowed by their Western counterparts. Park Chan-wook’s seminal revenge thriller, Oldboy, was instrumental in breaking the cultural barrier.
Released in 2003, Oldboy is an adaptation of the manga and the second instalment of Park’s thematic Vengeance Trilogy. It’s a furious revenge tale that follows a man imprisoned against his will for an unknown reason, and his search for the truth upon his release 15 years later. The film explores the universal theme of revenge and its consequences — a notion similarly explored in Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga, which premiered the same year.
But what exactly makes this film so special? The magic of Oldboy is best exemplified through, but certainly not limited to, three separate paradigms.
The Stellar Performances Will Leave You Breathless
Park understood that a narrative of this magnitude would require an exceptional cast, for it takes a certain calibre of acting talent to portray such broken, brutal and despondent characters.
The emotional weight of the film rests on the laurels of the film’s lead Oh Dae-su — a character who undergoes one of the most complex, torrid and destructive personal journeys ever captured on film. His pain and torment are expertly conveyed through the incredible performance of veteran Korean actor Choi Min-sik. Choi dedicated himself wholly to the role, gaining and losing weight during production based on what body shape was required for sequences, and even eating four live octopuses during the filming of the infamous restaurant scene, despite being a committed Buddhist.
Furthermore, the supporting cast offer a variety of complex and layered performances that compliment Oh’s revenge quest. Each character contributes equally to building a narrative centred around the culmination of decades of trauma and its consequences on the human psyche, and how the pursuit of total revenge destroys more than it resolves.
The Themes Are Relatable to Anyone With a Soul
“Even though I am no better than a beast, don’t I deserve the right to live?”
Oldboy‘s most famous quote can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the character the audience may attribute the quote to. Is revenge satisfactory? Can it ever truly bring closure or happiness? Would that closure or happiness feel earned?
The themes explored within Oldboy are entangled within the very fabrics of human bondage — revenge as justice, the longing for human connection, and how we perceive the dichotomy of good and evil in relation to our deeds.
The film also briefly touches on the importance of our human connections, the relationships we take for granted from day-to-day, and the reductive effect of technology on our connection to humanity. Prior to his imprisonment, Oh Dae-su is a drunken and irresponsible father, seemingly comfortable with making a fool of himself in public and missing out on his daughter’s birthday celebrations. After his comforts are ripped away from him, and he is starved of attention and solace, he must learn how to readjust when they are finally afforded back to him. He fervently fondles a stranger’s head, backs into an elevator corner in the mere presence of a woman, and as previously mentioned, consumes an octopus whole whilst it is still alive in order to literally taste the freedom he has longed for.
The Provocative Cinematography Drives the Tone Home
As Oh and the audience discover, the absence of comfort can transform a man, crumbling one’s constitution down entirely. However, this is a difficult concept to convey through performances alone. Thankfully, Park Chan-wook’s masterful direction and creative decisions allow his audience to peek into the mind of someone with nothing left to lose, fighting a world as cruel and violent as he has become.
Oldboy’s visual aesthetic is one of the most striking aspects of the film — the bleak narrative is accentuated perfectly through a filthy lens filter, grainy film quality and exciting camera work. The camera never shies away from the film’s violence, rather, it lingers on it just long enough to let your imagination fill in the gaps. It is never treated as a sterile observer of the film’s events, and is instead
placed within the scene as if it is its own character participating in the overarching mystery. It endears the audience to Oh’s journey by allowing us to experience his exhaustion and anguish alongside him.
No discussion of Oldboy’s cinematography would be complete without mentioning the famous “one-shot” hallway action scene, in which Oh faces off against countless henchmen in a claustrophobic space. This scene is credited with popularising the single take shot format, utilised to great effect in many modern action films such as the John Wick series. The scene sets itself apart from other on-film brawls of its era, largely for its dedication to realism. The clumsy, amateurish choreography allows us to empathise with the action further, and resembles an average drunken street fight more than a sparring match between professional killers or hardened military vets. The single take format ensures that we do not miss a solitary second of the excitement and was a genius decision on the behalf of director Park to ingratiate his audience to Oh’s struggle to an even further degree.
Oldboy will mark its 20th anniversary in 2023 and has been re-released in cinemas this year as an early celebration. A modern classic that is worthy of your time and attention, every aspect of the film fits together perfectly to craft a narrative that has shocked and disturbed viewers for generations. It is as they say regarding Oldboy: “you never forget your first time”.
Oldboy is screening in select cinemas now.