The film that transformed “Korean revenge” from concept to genre
Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
Oldboy wasn’t the first modern Korean film to gain international recognition (it wasn’t even the first film in writer/director Park Chan-wook’s acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy. That’d be 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance).
But Oldboy’s operatic style, gonzo visuals, astonishing levels of violence, and shocking narrative twists attracted a massive cult following and set the tenor for many film fans’ understanding of Korean cinema.
Loosely based on a manga of the same name, Oldboy follows Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, who would cement his place in the pantheon with his terrifying villains in Lady Vengeance and I Saw the Devil), a nondescript businessman who one day is pulled off the street and locked in a small room with no explanation as to who has taken him or why. Fifteen years later, he’s suddenly released, kicking off a one-man rampage as he tries to uncover the truth about who kidnapped him and why.
Oldboy is remembered for its most extravagant and shocking moments, like the one-take hammer fight, the squid-eating scene, or the film’s final shocking reveals and the gory fallout from those truths. It can often seem like the notoriety of the film’s most in-your-face moments overshadows whether or not Oldboy stands up as a film.
Over a decade on, does Oldboy live up to its hype, or is this one bit of madness that the Internet has already picked clean?
Did you get a chance to watch along with us this week? Want to recommend a great (or not so great) film for the whole gang to cover? Comment below or post on our Facebook or hit us up on Twitter!
Next Week’s Pick:
We’ve had a blast with this series on Korean cinema, but all good things must come to an end.
Having just covered the film that put Park Chan-wook on the map, we’re closing with his most recent missive: The Handmaiden. A welcome respite from his more brutal works, The Handmaiden is a dizzying, romantic caper with a plot that will keep you guessing all the way until the end.
The Handmaiden is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at)cinapse.co!
(note this entry contains spoilers)
Despite working as a projectionist for a class on Korean cinema, I’d somehow never managed to see Oldboy until this week. This film maintains an intense energy from beginning to end, that is unlike almost any other film I’ve seen. It is a revenge thriller for sure, but it twists the genre in a way that I haven’t really seen done before. While other films (notably Last House on the Left) explore the corrupting effect of vengeance, Oldboy essentially offers the scenario of a double revenge plot. One act of vengeance sparks another attempt at vengeance. Of course certain aspects of the plot obviously evoke the Greek tragedy of Oedipus, but the level of tragedy permeated by emptiness rather than catharsis, along with such visceral and violent imagery, reminds me of Shakespeare at his bloodiest — perhaps Titus Andronicus or even King Lear.
Oldboy is captivating, and yet also very difficult to watch. Its longest fight scene, shot along the length of a corridor in a single take with mostly practical effects, is by itself worth the price of admission (and something tells me there are a few people over at Marvel Television who are fans). The presentation of violence, the raw emotion of the protagonist, and the casual cruelty of the antagonists all combine to make one of the most compelling thrillers I’ve seen — and probably will not revisit for a long time. I’m not exactly a squeamish person when it comes to movies (I did my undergrad thesis on 1970s horror films) but the violence in Oldboy is up-close and explicit, without any of the disarming excesses or embellishments found in, say, a slasher movie. While well-made and powerful, the film is also deeply unsettling, so while it’s one that should be seen I don’t think it’s one that needs to be in heavy rotation. (@T_Lawson)
Oldboy isn’t for everyone. It’s not for the squeamish, the faint-hearted or for those with clean souls. But if you qualify for all of those, just because Oldboy attacks all of those aspects doesn’t mean it isn’t essential cinema. The middle installment in Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance trilogy isn’t just the best entry, or possibly the best film in Park’s extremely impressive filmography, but it’s one of the most brilliant films ever given to the world of cinema. I can still recall the first time I saw it, late at night & psyched after hearing just enough to be excited. Before the ending, I was blown away by the hallway fight sequence, the gut-wrenching imagery and impactful performances. But after that ending? I was completely destroyed. Just…wrecked. You know what…for those who are squeamish, faint-hearted and squeaky clean souls, go see it. Immediately. Even those like me who are all jacked up inside can still feel our souls get punched by the brilliancy of Oldboy. (@jaimeburchardt)
Doug Tilley (Boner Vivant):
I’m an Oldboy nut. I recall hearing stirrings of its “man locked away for 15 years” plot in various online film circles back in 2003, and as more information was released (and the hype started to grow) I became more and more obsessed with tracking it down. For those not buying DVDs in the early 2000s, you might not realize how frustrating that process could still be. Finding a Korean bootleg of the film in Toronto prior to its North American release meant I could watch it over and over again, trying to unlock its many secrets.
Nearly 15 years later, I can admit to some of its flaws. The plot is, obviously, ludicrous, and its near-supernatural hook by way of explanation certainly tests the limits of suspension of disbelief. Some of Park Chan-wook’s visual flourishes are excessive, and stick out unpleasantly on repeated viewings. It’s also a film that is never quite as breathtaking after a first viewing.
But I love it. Choi Min-sik’s central performance is incredible. The excesses of the storytelling are exhilarating. The climactic moments are devastating, repulsive and absolutely unforgettable.
But it’s more than just a great, stylish, gorgeously violent film. For me, it marked the starting point of discovering Korean New Wave film-making, and its worldwide success meant greater exposure to the work of Kim Jee-woon and Bong Joon-Ho. Memories of Murder and Oldboy were both released in the same *year*! Unbelievable.
While the three directors haven’t exactly taken Hollywood by storm (though I’m a The Last Stand apologist, too), they also — mercifully — haven’t conformed. Snowpiercer, Stoker and The Handmaiden are as vital, interesting and visually inventive as their earlier films, and suggest they won’t go the watered-down route that plagued the Hong Kong invasion of the mid-90s.
Don’t be put off by the remakes (though Zinda is fun) or the rip-offs. Oldboy is the real deal, and a necessary watch for those curious about Korean cinema or cinema in general.(@Doug_Tilley)
Here’s the problem: Oldboy, more than almost any other movie I could name, is fundamentally built around a trick. Or…if not a trick, than a misdirection around which the entire film spins. And I had that twist spoiled for me YEARS ago and as such…Oldboy fell a little flat.
You see, everything about how Oldboy is constructed is done in such a way as to make the big reveal hit like a sledgehammer. Park Chan-wook, a poet of stillness, uses a hyper-kinetic visual style with quick cuts and rapid montages. The movie begins at a sprint and keeps up that pace for most of its two hours. Oldboy grabs you by the collar and charges ahead. For much of its running time, Oldboy is a giddy romp and you, the blood-thirsty audience member, get caught up in it. You want to see Oh Dae-su solve the mystery of his imprisonment and get gory revenge. His desperation onscreen is a reflection of our own desire to get to the end and see how all the pieces fit together.
And then you find out the truth and it is HORRIFYING.
But knowing where the movie is going in advance robs it of its greatest punch, and it leaves Oldboy feeling more frantic and gimmicky (and, frankly, silly) then the operatic tragedy it is aiming for. Park Chan-wook is one of the great living filmmakers, so Oldboy is still a tremendously well-crafted film, but I came away from it feeling like it was far and away the weakest of the Vengeance trilogy, and maybe his weakest film overall (y’all slept on J.S.A.).
My advice to you is to avoid knowing anything about Oldboy and see it completely fresh. (@TheTrueBrendanF)
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