Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the absurd humor and abject violence of South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook. Read the rest of our coverage here.
When Oldboy hit theaters, South Korean director Park Chan-wook furthered his affinity for thrilling violence. Four features under his belt, including the first of his now-dubbed Vengeance Trilogy starting with 2002’s Mr. Vengeance, Park adapted the thriller from a Japanese manga series of the same name. As such, Oldboy continued Park’s legacy as an influential filmmaker in both South Korea and the world overall, especially with its Grand Prix win at Cannes Film Festival. Almost two decades later, it lives as a modern classic, a movie that sits on Top 500 and Best World Cinema lists.
There’s a scene early in Oldboy that shows the protagonist, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), torturing a man by pulling out his teeth. The scene sets a precedent for what the audience will see over the some 100 minutes that follow: Oh pushing his body and his morality to the limits. The violence doesn’t feel emotionless, though. Each slash by Oh’s hammer has more influence than your 2020 blockbuster fight scene.
Drawing important and intentional comparisons to Oedipus the King and other Greek tragedies, Oldboy rests in and on the face of Choi, who alternates between blind fury, blunderous confusion, and strained sadness. Following a man whose night of drunkenness leads to imprisonment, the majority of Oldboy exists in a five-day span after his release. Unsure why he was kidnapped in the first place, Oh must find the reason for his capture and subsequent release after 15 years in captivity. Filled with twists and turns every few minutes in its third act, the thriller leans on hypnotism to further the mystery.
Park conveys a blurry confusion, playing with the idea of reality, causing you to question how much of what you just watched actually happened.
In its final moments, Park conveys a blurry confusion, playing with the idea of reality, causing you to question how much of what you just watched actually happened. It’s a shift from joy to deep regret and sorrow, and a representation of the mountainous highs and cavernous lows that Oh experiences. It’s a severe, complex film, and for good reason. Characters are making choices at every little moment in Oldboy, even when it’s pulling you in several directions.
I found myself covering my eyes—or at least wanting to shut them and leave this universe—due to the constant, prescient unease. I struggled to pull myself away from the relationship between Oh and Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), the young chef who cares for him with simple, uncomplicated love, regardless of the circumstances of their past. Their relationship becomes the beating heart splashed between death, torture, and emotional and physical pain.
She lacks much agency throughout the film, but her choice to bring him in still feels like hers. Park infuses intimacy into the film, allowing his anti-hero to become more human. Oh looks most human when he’s with Lee, and in those moments, he transforms into a wounded, distressed man, not one full of brutal vengeance capable of murdering others with a hammer.
Featuring long takes of action and fight scenes, the hallway scene of Oldboy would be a first ballot inductee into the Action Sequence Hall of Fame. The fighting itself isn’t flashy or relatively advanced, but the choreography of Oh sparring with 25 henchmen remains remarkable. Armed with a hammer, Oh moves with a slow yet wild approach, putting his years of shadowboxing in captivity to use. It’s an intoxicating scene in an intoxicating movie, one that slapped me across the face and then wrapped me in a warm embrace. I don’t know how else to describe the feeling of watching this film, yet I do know that it’s an experience movie-lovers should welcome.
Oldboy remains one of Park’s best films, one of South Korea’s modern classics, and one of the most fascinating ruminations on the idea and genre of revenge. It forces you to think about the inner workings of pain, suffering, and death. It pushes you to keep your eyes open when you want to shut them forever. A powerful and smart ode to tragedy, Park’s film manages to provoke you, dishearten you, and thrill you.