Directed by Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, Lady Vengeance, Stoker, Thirst), Oldboy partakes a vicious story of vengeance and shock that most films can’t perceive. Brimming with the irresistible flicker of humanity, the attempts to pass time and the extremity of holding onto something worthwhile, Chan-wook’s masterpiece arranges the confinements of his film on a platform that works on a thrillingly primal level, and one that is still discussed for its unique aesthetics and elaborate techniques within the South Korean cinema scene.
Following businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) and his obsession with figuring out why he was imprisoned for fifteen long years and who did it, Park Chan-wook dives deep into a taut, darkened venture that causes the characters to doubt themselves, their surroundings, the path of truth and the path of lies. Starting with a depiction of Oh Dae-su’s drunken behavior and his questioning from the authority after his arrest, we start to see that his obnoxious attitude doesn’t last long before his confinement makes him sympathetic and understanding, once he is suddenly—and mysteriously—abducted outside a police station when his friend picks him up.
Finding himself in a room where he’s served meals, given a TV, and gassed every night before his scheduled bedtime, without explanation, Oh Dae-su counts the days of his imprisonment as fifteen long years pass—gradually immersing him into insanity. Expressing his rage by punching the four walls, practicing fighting, and taking out his anger on a drawn target of a male figure (unsuspectingly the person who kidnapped him), he begins to make an escape attempt, but finds himself unexpectedly released. Given a mobile phone, a designer suit and a wallet full of cash, Oh Dae-su sets out on exacting revenge, although the sole evidence in his possession is the fact that he must accomplish this revenge in five days. Venturing out into the big city, our protagonist starts to simply track and recount the evil he has done to other people’s lives, meeting chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) along the way; who takes pity on him and brings him to her home. Making sense of the situation that has dwelled on him for so long, Oh Dae-su soon becomes fixated on the little he knows and the dangers he has to face, as well as the horrible truths that he will discover along the path of revealing the reason why half of his life was taken away from him.
Direction, Aesthetic and Sequences
Park Chan-wook’s films have always obtained a unique and versatile visual style through cinema, a directorial style that could be considered a combination of art-house, mainstream and cult. Using his films to insist that he is, first and foremost, a storyteller, Park accesses every element within his film to support the tale in the best way, and this is widely exemplified through a portrayal of two succeeding sequences: the one where Oh Dae-su is confined in his locked room, and the moment of his escape.
In the first sequence, we are shown art-house aesthetics while the camera exhilarates at a slow pace, gradually introducing us to the inside four walls where Oh Dae-su will remain for fifteen long years. As well as this, Park focuses our attention on the consequences the imprisonment causes to Dae-su, and the extreme nature that will soon immerse and conquer his thoughts and expressions throughout the rest of the film. In turn, the scene where he escapes definitely portrays a movement towards the mainstream, as its presence looks like it was pinched out of a Hollywood blockbuster—particularly due to the fact that a single man wins against dozens of opponents. It’s also abrupt when there is a quick cut at the end of the scene which motions the scene to move towards this direction.
The side of the film that exemplifies the cult aesthetic is quite evident among a number of scenes. In one, Oh Dae-su is devouring a live octopus (which Choi Min-sik actually had to do), and it complements well with the two mentioned sequences, altogether combining well with the exploitation elements—in a distinct cult fashion.
The Presentation of Vengeance
Park Chan-wook’s films have always obligated a sense of revenge, whether that be to expand on the character’s focus or to solely emerge a chain reaction from the viewers witnessing the growing hatred—but Oldboy is different. The 2003 acclaimed exotic masterpiece has the act of vengeance as its central theme from the very beginning, with Park directing the film with the actual goal of presenting another dimension—one that leads to repentance. Building the ultimate humiliation and degradation of ensuing catharsis to complement the primary concepts within the story, we ultimately learn that it is all created entirely to implement the element of the set (the focus being on the retribution not being displayed as an act, but the reasons that lead to it and its consequences instead).
The features that compress the consequences are the most obvious. When Dae-su is utterly destroyed through exacting revenge from the man who imprisoned him for fifteen years, he didn’t expect to come to the realization that he was immersing himself into a sickening transpire. Opening up a whole new sicko frontier of exacting vengeance, we also learn the case of Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), the culprit of Dae-su’s task, who sees the futility of revenge as an expression for a man to devote all his powers within the act of revenge towards a man who is already destroyed—which not only comes across as strikingly disturbing, but marks Lee with a “heart of darkness.” Revenge is a tool that seeks a primitive emotion that fulfills no rational function but a specific purpose, so when Park carefully dissolves his characters within the revenge theme, it slowly immerses into a startling two-way game. As the film goes on, Park combines the intentions from both Oh Dae-su and Lee and expresses the overall idea that anyone can cause others to suffer by committing seemingly trivial acts—therefore elevating the story to reach beyond the standard status of commercial entertainment, and be acclaimed a philosophical phenomenal.
The Injection of Distinct, Dark and Ironic Humor
Oldboy acquires a number of shocking and extreme scenes and concepts. From the abduction of Dae-su, to his imprisonment for fifteen long years, to the reason behind it, and everything in between, is truly horrific. The scene in which he devours a live octopus, the various fist fights in the hall, and the entirety of the ending sequence, definitely pulls off a shock element that is not easy to overcome while watching, however Park manages to implement something else into the sort. An element that gives the setting of the film a slight posture and ease.
Injecting his distinct, dark, and ironic sense of humor into the film was one of the best things he had done, especially in such a burdensome layout. During the corridor scene, in which Dae-su takes out dozens of opponents in a bloody fight, he asks the thugs for their blood type before he hands them a member of their group he had previously hurt. There’s a dark sense of irony that lingers but the whole concept of Oh Dae-su is that he’s a caricature throughout the majority of the film; a distortion of characteristics that he’s compiled from his abduction to his moment of escape. It’s a concerning relationship that he has with himself but it’s the most similar and indistinguishable feature that allows him to carry on with his life—even if it meant asking a hypnotist to make him forget the sickening and incestuous truth at the very end.
The Complexity of the Cinematography & Editing
Park Chan-wook’s films have always given off a beautiful presentation of the complexity within his stories, but Oldboy is something else. With Chung Chung-hoon’s cinematography in the picture, the bright colors, intentional grain and color saturation, is used in an effort to match the extreme nature of the tale without physically exhausting the audience or the storyline on screen—and it’s wondrous.
Park remains one of the most prominent filmmakers in the industry, especially due to his use of the handheld camera that he implements to give his films a slightly shaky effect. Present in Oldboy for final sequences, the movement and angles that he lets off are immensely subtle, the medium coming across with fine recognition. As well as this, the presence of the handheld device also allows a more direct view of the scene towards the audience, allowing viewers to imagine that they are part of the film too; watching the most eloquently filmed final fight and Dae-su crawl and beg tirelessly as he learns the horrifying truth from the days of his escape.
This same trait would also apply towards the editing done by Kim Sang-beom. Despite the aforementioned scene, his style of editing is wonderfully put to use in the opening scene of the film, when Dae-su wakes up inside a briefcase on a rooftop, and meets a man with a dog clutched tightly towards his chest, about to commit suicide. Dismissing his intentions, Dae-su saves him and tells him his story, as Cho Young-Wuk’s piece, Look Who’s Talking, plays in the background, creating an utter feeling of suspense and a taste of the prickling cold sweats that the audience will endure more off throughout.
“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.“
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy still remains a strikingly original piece of cinema. Known for its sporadic scenes of grim violence, shocking revelations and a philosophical rather than exploitative intake of revealing the focus core of humanity and civilization, it’s safe to say that the embrace of madness and psychotic levels of hatred that it exemplifies within its tale will be remembered forever. And quite frankly, will remain one of the best built survival and lurid, complex revenge plots that extreme cinema has ever enacted upon.
The visceral shocks of Oldboy will return to select cinemas in the United Kingdom on August 2nd