It’s been 20 years since director Park Chan-wook unleashed his twisted revenge thriller, Oldboy, on audiences (though America wouldn’t see the film until March 2005). The second entry in Park’s highly acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, which began with the minimalist neo-noir Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in 2002 and was preceded by the elegiac Lady Vengeance in 2005, Oldboy has held onto the general acknowledgment of being the high point of this series. Given its highly stylish presentation, the unfolding mystery, several notable sequences, and a tremendous all-in lead performance from Choi Min-sik, it’s easy to see why the film has stood the test of time. The film is now being re-released in the U.S. in a newly remastered and restored form approved by Park and distributed by Neon. Audiences, new and old, will now have the chance to see how imaginary training is put to use.
Inspired by the Japanese manga series by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi, the film’s story easily lures viewers in based on an intriguing hook. A surly businessman, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), is imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years with no knowledge as to why, only to be released and still wrapped up in a plot designed to make him suffer. Of course, it would be Park who ultimately chose to stray from the original narrative in favor of a climax more than a little inspired by Oedipus Rex.
Even before reaching an ending full of shocking revelations, Park was set on making this quest for vengeance an arduous journey for all involved. By the film’s midway point, Oh Dae-su has pursued his captor, resulting in a hallway full of men being beaten up by one man and a hammer. One man jumped off a building (with his dog in tow), as our protagonist did not want to listen to his story after sharing his own. And an entire live octopus was eaten by Oh Dae-su to fulfill his desire to devour something living (a total of four octopi were consumed by Choi Min-sik for the filming of this sequence to be completed; the actor being a Buddhist, he spoke a prayer for each one).
Could audiences know what to make of a film like this at the time? For Americans with edgy tastes, Japanese films such as Battle Royale, Ichi the Killer, and Audition (among other J-horror titles), were more like cult objects than mainstream fair. South Korean thrillers were even less of a known quantity in the States, with filmmakers like Kim Ji-woon and Bong Joon-ho arriving around the same time with A Tale of Two Sisters and Memories of Murder to help them begin to stand out from the pack.
Oldboy was the highest-grossing film in South Korea in 2003. It would win the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Quentin Tarantino, president of the jury that year, pushed hard to give the film the top prize. While the rumor is that it was quite close, he was unsuccessful due to the might that was, you guessed it, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (a documentary that’s aged about as well as you’d think). Regardless, the film would find its audience in America.
Tartan Films would go on to pick up Oldboy for distribution, applying the “Asia Extreme” label to make it seem even more enticing. It worked. Park’s film quickly became a cult hit, feeling like one of the films college kids could point to as an international film that was very edgy and cool. Not an inaccurate consideration, but it went deeper than merely the aesthetics. The film received critical acclaim from all over, including a 4 out of 4-star review from Roger Ebert, who praised the violent thriller for having a purpose behind its madness.
This all speaks to the film’s appeal. While designed to make the audience uncomfortable in various instances, the film is never less than riveting. While revenge stories in movies come at a dime a dozen, here’s one that combines bravura filmmaking with the mental anguish of someone who’s been pushed into an odyssey with no understanding of who his mysterious tormentor is. Making that discovery would allow for a sense of relief, only for that satisfaction to be immediately undone. But why even put audiences through all of this? While the ending’s ambiguity allows viewers to determine more of what really took place for themselves, the film is peppered with intriguing lines of dialogue and narration throughout. The dismay faced by Oh Dae-su is countered with gems such as “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.”
Working to understand the kind of men we are dealing with and to what extent plans for revenge have (and at what cost), it meant finding performers who could show such intensity. Choi Min-sik, already a respected actor, found further acclaim following his work in this film, and for good reason. Embracing the role whole-heartedly, which included doing much of his stunt work, it is a performance for the ages. Allowing himself to look off and make himself fully vulnerable, only to counter that with these displays of athleticism when it comes to handling himself in a fight; there’s a full range of work and emotion on display, which is only complicated further once we come around to the ending.
Other performers are effective enough, but Yoo Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin, the man behind Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment, continues to impress every time I revisit this film. It’s a precise performance, with only so much time to make his reasonings clear. The notable age gap would be distracting were it not for how Yoo Ji-tae presents himself, firmly placing this film in heightened territory. Between his high-class wardrobe and elaborate penthouse apartment, the actor leans well into the life of a rich man, strong-willed enough to get back at someone he blames for taking away the thing he cared for most.
In arranging the collision of these characters over time, let alone the many other memorable moments, Park’s work with director of photography Chung Chung-hoon led to a striking feature just in terms of its visuals. This isn’t even necessarily speaking to the violence on display (which is notably implied in a few key moments that audiences may have chosen to recall differently). No, while the film’s stylish flourishes when it comes to a few fight sequences (most notably a single shot hallway fight that resembles a side-scrolling beat ‘em up arcade game) bring out the beauty amid the bloodshed, Oldboy is notably sickly in so much of its presentation.
With bold colors being suppressed until critical points in the film, many greens and monotone palettes were utilized. Combined with the bleach bypass applied to the film (in the days before digital became the norm), Oldboy is incredibly grainy and very specific in its visual intention. Park has undoubtedly evolved since as a filmmaker. Still, in his attempts to push the viewer with what it means for Oh Dae-su’s hellish nightmare of an existence, the cinematography is evocative in ways that head toward the opposite of joy. After all, this is not a happy story.
Still, there is a sense that the role vengeance plays could imply the chance for redemption. Once again, taking in the final revelations and what Yoo Ji-tae and Oh Dae-su ultimately decide on as far as what to pursue following their climactic meeting, it’s easy to be struck with trying to define what an ideal future would be for either of these men, who have twisted their goals into a futile attempt to gain back what’s been lost.
This does speak to the classical nature of the characters involved and the basics of the plot. Park had approached ideas for this story with a sense of mythological interpretations in mind. Perhaps that’s also an aspect that helps the film stand as strong as it does. For all the modern qualities, including CG ants, ambitious crosscutting in the editing, and, once again, the very off look Oh Dae-su has when compared to anyone around him, this film relies on many formal techniques. This is not a hard story to follow, and the orchestral score by Cho Young-wuk helps to amplify the desired emotions of a given moment. With Oh Dae-su becoming a force to be reckoned with until someone finally provides answers, Oldboy balances complexity with more primal qualities that can be quite appealing.
Of course, speaking so much of the men in this film highlights a limitation in Oldboy, which is the role women have to play. There are only three key female characters – Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a naïve love interest for Oh Dae-su following his imprisonment, a hypnotist (Seung-shin Lee), and Lee Woo-jin’s sister, Lee Soo-ah (Yoon Jin-seo). We learn what we need to about these characters, and while the film is so preoccupied with Oh Dae-su’s journey and the role Lee Woo-jin has in it that it’s hard to find fault in only offering so much to others, one can see how a reconfigured story would allow for more agency on their part. Given the taboo topics fueling the motivations, some additional dimension would be welcome.
Looking at the film two decades later, it’s easy to see Oldboy’s impact on cinema. In terms of elements directly lifted out of this film, just look at video games, various action movies, or the series of Netflix Marvel shows, specifically Daredevil, which went out of its way to showcase an elaborate Hallway fight. Other twisted tales of vengeance became a running theme for Tartan Films releases, let alone other international features from directors also willing to push limits.
In America, while the horror genre took more influence from the “Asia Extreme” films more than anything, it didn’t stop Hollywood from wanting to do what came as most natural – an English-language remake. This was a strange journey in and of itself, as the original plan involved Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. While they claimed to have wanted to specifically adapt the original manga instead of Park’s film, one could only imagine what those two heavy hitters would have delivered.
Just as interesting, initially at least, however, was Spike Lee coming in to direct the remake, with Josh Brolin in the lead role. Unfortunately, studio clashes prevented Lee from delivering the film he would have liked people to see (it’s notably labeled a “Spike Lee Film” as opposed to his signature “Spike Lee Joint”), and the theatrical release bombed out with audiences and critics.
Looking toward the future, South Korean cinema and television has found its way into the American media landscape in a big way. One can point to various shows on streaming networks, most notably Netflix’s Squid Game. Of course, a shining moment for all involved was watching director Bong Joon-ho go from cinephile favorite to multiple Oscar recipient thanks to the excellence that is his 2019 darkly comedic thriller and Best Picture winner, Parasite. This isn’t to say Oldboy is solely responsible for how we look at South Korean cinema or international features, in general, today, but for a modern generation, Park Chan-wook delivered an essential building block.
As for Park as a filmmaker, even with Lady Vengeance, one could already see his drive to further develop his visual ambition and how to contend with tricky narratives nestled in dark and provocative themes. After making such masculine thrillers, one may notice that each of Park’s films, since Oldboy, has placed female characters at the forefront. It’s not a coincidence that Park has collaborated with Chung Seo-kyung on nearly every one of these features. Having a female perspective included in the writing has allowed Park to expand his filmography in intriguing ways that are no less warped when considering their stories. Not hurting at all is how his pitch-black sense of humor still finds its way into Thirst, The Handmaiden, and his most recent film, Decision to Leave, among others.
So now we arrive at the present with Neon releasing the newly restored and remastered Oldboy into theaters. Having seen the film on a big screen for the first time, its impact is no different, though it certainly plays in an even grander fashion with the audience’s reaction to go along with it. If anything, observing the specific qualities of what Park accomplished at the time only highlights why the film has become an enduring cult classic and stands as one of the best films of the 2000s (or at least one of my favorites). It’s been an inspirational work for other artists and a revenge tale balancing its gripping journey with a cerebral edge. With the audacity to challenge audiences while entertaining them, the plight of Oh Dae-su remains intriguing and is now being offered up for others to fall under Oldboy’s spell with him.