If Parasite cemented South Korea’s arrival in the western cinematic zeitgeist, the door to that cultural space was first violently pried open by Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy in 2003. The second entry in his Vengeance Trilogy—book-ended by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005)—Park’s disturbing neo-noir turns 20 this year. To celebrate, distributors NEON have released a brand-new restoration in U.S. cinemas today, offering audiences the chance to experience the movie’s macabre delights the way it was meant to be seen: writhing in one’s seat with a discomfort shared by fellow voyeurs, in the confines of a darkened room.
For the last two decades, the twisted thriller—loosely based on the Japanese manga Old Boy, written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi—has been a gateway drug for non-Koreans interested in Korean ultraviolence, and in Korean cinema at large. It’s a prime example of deliberately off-kilter pacing, the kind that would be killed by studio notes were it a Hollywood production. In fact, Hollywood made its own version of the film in 2013—as did Bollywood, with the Hindi-language knockoff Zinda in 2006—but both these remakes were so hyper-focused on the original’s action and plot that they failed to capture the festering melancholy beneath its surface.
Take, for instance, Park’s iconic, one-shot fight sequence that tracks laterally along a hallway, as protagonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) hammers his way through a group of goons for nearly four minutes straight. This visual language has seeped into numerous global productions since, which have aped the scene in concept—from Netflix’s Daredevil to The CW’s Superman & Lois on two different occasions—but their more graceful, tightly controlled versions of the brawl miss the forest for the trees. In Park’s film, the scene is tied together both by the actors’ flailing, heaving desperation, as well as the despondency of Cho Young-wuk’s carefully modulated musical score. The original is a technical marvel to be sure, but it’s the furthest thing from “badass.”
At its core, Oldboy is a film about the loss of control and autonomy, beginning with Dae-su being locked in a mysterious hotel room for 15 years, for reasons he doesn’t understand. Forced to watch the stories of his wife’s murder and his infant daughter’s adoption as news items on TV, he gradually loses his grip on reality, imagining insects crawling across his skin—like hallucinations caused by carbon monoxide poisoning—as his face twists into a forced and agonizing grin. There’s something viscerally uncomfortable about seeing what torment does to him, and what he becomes in the process. Before his abduction, he was a meek and pathetic middle-class everyman, whose drunken advances towards women landed him in legal trouble. But during his incarceration, he begins preparing for his inevitable escape by training himself as a ruthless fighter. When he's released from his prison (just as suddenly as he was captured), he emerges in a visage that has now become iconic: an all-black formal ensemble, a mop of self-chopped hair, a yellow hammer in hand, and a dead-eyed focus on retribution.
However, even as he finds companionship in young sushi chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), the aftereffects of his imprisonment continue to linger. He was hypnotized numerous times, which forces him to wonder just how much of his newfound freedom is his own, and which of his subsequent actions are the result of mere suggestion. Even his revenge mission may not be entirely his own; perhaps he’s still locked up, in a prison of the mind.
When he's released from his prison (just as suddenly as he was captured), he emerges in a visage that has now become iconic: an all-black formal ensemble, a mop of self-chopped hair, a yellow hammer in hand, and a dead-eyed focus on retribution.
Eventually, the suave villain Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) reveals his motives, and the full extent of both the hypnosis and his larger ruse, imbuing the story with elements of Greek tragedy in retrospect. There are incestuous implications to its numerous reveals—these are best left un-specified for those yet to discover the film—but its Oedipal overtones extend far beyond its notorious plot twists. Just as the truth pushed Oedipus to gouge out his own eyes, Oldboy is a movie similarly filled with mutilation and self-mutilation, both as acts of vengeance as well as penance. Its most unnerving scenes center intimate, close-up violence enacted on tongues and teeth. These are scenes during which the camera cuts away on impact, but they cause sickening ripples in the imagination.
Oldboy is also a sickly film. Its unnaturally green and yellow hues feel infected—the updated transfer pushes these visual elements even further. Its camera often turns and travels loosely, in numerous directions, around un-fixed axes, as if the camera operator and his equipment were anemic, and as if Park were losing control of the film as well. Dae-su, having been locked away for 15 years, spends his initial scenes back out in the world trying to regain both his sexual impulse control and a sense of equilibrium. However, his blinkered revenge mission forces him to exist in a space of volatile instability. Even the quiet, more withheld scenes in which he tries to investigate his captor feel distracted, as Dae-su zeroes in on physical details—like a scar on a woman’s bare knee, which sends him dovetailing into a flashback.
There’s rarely a moment that isn’t overshadowed by the looming possibility that Dae-su will explode in a fit of violence. And so, while the finer details of Woo-jin’s plan end up being shockingly sinister, it often feels like the villain has already won well before the closing credits, by turning Dae-su into an unpredictable monster. His romantic and sexual dynamic with Mi-do is that of a beast who re-learns to be gentle, but in the grand scheme of Woo-jin’s plot, this hopeful sense of liberation through love is what ends up hurting Dae-su the most, coloring Oldboy with a sense of nihilism from which there can be no escape.
A bloody, misanthropic classic, Oldboy is among the most vivid modern depictions of vengeance and its futility, capturing the way this impulse rankles both body and soul.
A bloody, misanthropic classic, Oldboy is among the most vivid modern depictions of vengeance and its futility, capturing the way this impulse rankles both body and soul. Its aesthetic after-effects have lingered in the collective cinematic consciousness for two whole decades, seeding themselves like hypnotic suggestions, in the minds of anyone who hopes to tell a story of revenge, of men on missions, or of violence in any form.
Published on August 16, 2023