Korean cinema has been a thing since the nation’s liberation from Japan at the end of World War II and while there’s almost certainly a long and rich cultural history within that time span into the new millennium, the majority of the world remains somewhat ignorant of its existence, including yours truly. The international attention on the cinema of South Korea had begun around the late 1990s and almost as an after-thought, as much of the domestic financial success of South Korean films came about from a law passed limiting the amount of foreign films from playing in South Korean cinemas. So when the crime film Shiri out-performed Star Wars, Titanic, and The Matrix in South Korean cinemas, it got noticed and it only took one year further for Park Chan-wook’s war courtroom drama J.S.A. Joint Security Area to surpass Shiri‘s success. By that point, the New Wave of South Korean Cinema had the world’s eyes upon it and its biggest names – Park, Bong Joon-ho, Kim Ki-duk, Kim Ji-woon, Lee Chang-dong – and it was around this point when Oldboy made notoriety by losing the Palme d’Or at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival allegedly because Tilda Swinton strongarmed the jury and its president Quentin Tarantino into giving the prestigious prize to Fahrenheit 9/11 to protest U.S. President George W. Bush’s potential re-election. Utter scandal aside from possibly the worst year in Cannes history, Tarantino’s raving support for Oldboy may have been the biggest window to South Korean cinema’s impending popularity in Western cinephilia upon its release in the US in 2005, nearly 2 years after its original November 2003 release in South Korea.
That was me overthinking what could have brought the first non-Arabic, non-French, and non-American film that I actually pursued as a budding cinephile (after being fed Jackie Chan and watching Godzilla as a child; also unfortunately French-dubbed Life Is Beautiful in class). When you speak three languages from childhood, your first “Foreign-Language” film is a tough call, but I’d define Oldboy as the first Foreign-Language film I consciously chose to watch. And what brought me to that very selection? Well, I just read the synopsis on a video store’s guide and found it interesting.
Short and sweet: A man got locked up for 15 years and is released before being assigned only 5 days to find out what led to his imprisonment. That’s all I knew before jumping in – Park Chan-wook had already won the Grand Prix (in consolation to the Palme loss) but he wasn’t as internationally reknowned a name as he is now, I had no idea it was based albeit loosely on a Japanese manga series, and there was absolutely no way I would have known in advance the direction the third act goes that made Oldboy such a notorious grubby pseudo-exploitation shocker. That a movie ends on the note that Oldboy does and it actually encouraged me to find more foreign-language films says something about impressionable 13-year-old me is.
Mind you, the finale is hardly THE problematic element of the script by Park, Hwang Jo-yoon, and Im Joon-hyeong when it focuses on portraying our protagonist, the released prisoner Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik, the very star of Shiri) to be a godawful chauvinistic violent drunkard who can barely control his sexual urges (it is a bold move to have our protagonist attempt a rape early on) and has barely any trouble turning into a cold calculating being of vengence. Dae-su seems aware of this himself, as during his imprisonment he begins drafting down all his transgressions and the victims of them as both penance, self-reflection, and most importantly a map on where to start looking. That doesn’t seem necessary because almost immediately upon his release, the wealthy man (Yoo Ji-tae) responsible for Dae-su’s imprisonment, subsequent framing in his wife’s murder, and the out-of-country adoption of their daughter arranges a face-to-face and is somehow unrecognizable to Dae-su. The captor pressures Dae-su into finding out the motive behind the imprisonment or he will also arrange the murder of Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), the young girl who took Dae-su into her home when he passed out at her restaurant. But hey, Dae-su gets it right, then his captor will kill himself, so there’s an upside.
You getting a vibe that Oldboy is kind of dismissive about its female characters? Because it kind of is. Mi-do, the weakest performance of the leads, is given no real inner life whatsoever as a person (eventually the movie goes a turn that implies this might be deliberate, but feels icky and empty nevertheless) and any women are props for the men’s suffering, even when they’re being sexually assaulted or subject to depression. It’s kind of impressive that, for all of that, Park would soon after follow up with FOUR women–centric films that are pretty great representations (albeit with their own slight problems). But in the meanwhile, Oldboy is a heavily masculine film. What else would you expect from a movie whose most famous scene is a 3-minute long burly hallway brawl?
And yet, I still have no trouble calling Oldboy my favorite work from the esteemed and accomplished Park. Everything I just described (and even the things I refuse to describe in the third act) would be repulsive at face value and feel like shock content for content’s sake if Park didn’t have a tight control on the romanticism of the movie. Which only makes the film sound more amoral (and it kind of is), but there’s an atmosphere of tragedy and regret placed in every beat – transported softly by Jo Yeong-wook giving one of my all-time favorite scores, a perfect balance between Vivaldi rearrangements, sweeping violins, and modernized tracking – and the movie is… it’s very clean. We have only a few grotty sequences of an underground prison designed to look sickly by Ryu Seong-hie and captured in damp greens by Chung Chung-hoon in his very first collaboration with Park (they’re still working together to this day), but much of the film takes place in modern exteriors and metropolitan areas that Chung and Ryu provide with still a sad and cold white and blue (sometimes khaki) sheen, all traversed by Dae-su dressed in very fine threads. The only visual signifier of Dae-su’s mental instability – other than Choi’s incredible performance where muting his emotions in a manner that makes the character sad rather than scary but still having reserves for intense moments of aggressive savagery – is his loud and unkempt hair (and even that is eventually cut back).
Park and company are basically trying to package a piece of trash storytelling as a Kafka-esque character drama and it absolutely works. Moments of torture and violence are given an operatic gravitas by the music that almost lends black humor to the situation and inner character scenes have a dark taste that make us captivated emotionally. In spite of knowing early on what kind of man Dae-su is, Oldboy succeeds in handcuffing us to his struggles with what an awful person he is and how far he has to go to get the answers he wants. That’s a gamble no American production can truly make (part of why Spike Lee’s remake is a complete boondoggle) where we’re just as eager to align ourselves with this guy and find out what happened. And that’s what really makes not talking about the third act agonizing.
It’s exactly where the movie unpacks all of the emotional anguish we’ve had to experience and provides a new context that should frankly disgust us on first watch. It’s where the movie pokes and prods and mocks the viewer for getting so involved with Dae-su. But most importantly, and something I needed multiple viewings to catch, it’s where the movie essentially ties tawdriness and tragedy together one more time and provides a devastating final note that can’t possibly leave any of the characters or even the audience satisfied. Despite one narrative element shooting the movie in the foot this late in the game, Choi and Yoo fire on all cylinders with their performance in a final confrontation playing with power dynamics that it’s like watching a Shakespeare on the screen. Choi slowly devolving from the cool calculating monster we saw him at first to a devastated being of flop sweat, Yoo slowly changing on and off between haunted self-loathing into condescendingly confident brat and all barreling to shocking actions that make complete sense in the narrative arc.
I’m going overboard with the hyperbole without description, but Oldboy is a film that I want somebody to experience first-hand. It was a revelatory moment for me to know that stories could go these unseemly places while retaining dignity. It was a piece of pop culture that could function as an intellectual delve into the deviance of man that exploits and still indicts those impulses. That made Park one of my first teachers on the constructs of thriller filmmaking, by having a complete sense of what can actually shock the viewer and what can gain their sympathies…
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