Park Chan-wook’s Masterpiece Stands the Test of Time
Twenty years ago, Park Chan-wook gave us his disturbing, yet often comedic, magnum opus: Oldboy.
Loosely based on Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi’s manga series of the same name, the film follows Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), an obnoxious alcoholic who is suddenly mysteriously kidnapped, being kept in a private prison. After 15 years, Oh Dae-su is suddenly freed, entering the outside world for the first time in over a decade. With no knowledge as to why he was imprisoned, or who was responsible, he embarks on a mission fueled with revenge and vengeance, which leads to a cat and mouse game fueled with absolute mayhem. Interestingly enough, this is actually the second film in Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, right after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and being the unofficial prequel to Lady Vengeance (2005). However, these three films are incredibly easy to differentiate, and Oldboy in particular remains as Chan-wook’s finest film to date.
Some of the greatest movies are ones that are incredibly versatile, and with Oldboy, it is near impossible to narrow it down to one genre. Sure, you could simply classify it as a revenge thriller, but it can also be labeled as a dark comedy, a horror movie, a psychological thriller, or even a romance (although that may not be the best use of that word, depending on who you ask). This film is blended with emotions and scenes that will stay with you for a very long time, all for different reasons. There’s a specific moment in the first half of the movie where Oh Dae-su, after having been released from prison, sits next to a man and his dog. The mysterious man was seconds away from jumping off the top of a building, killing himself and his dog. After telling the man about his story and current predicament, the man sympathizes, and begins to talk about what brought him to his current state. As he opens his mouth, Oh Dae-su abruptly stands up and rudely leaves, not saying a word. The moment is small, but memorable. Despite the film being as dark as it is, comedic moments like these never feel out of place, which goes to show how well the film blends its genres.
Oldboy is filled to the brim with shocking moments in an absurd storyline. However, you never feel like anything is too unrealistic or excessive. Take the iconic corridor scene, which is arguably one of the best fight scenes ever filmed. Oldboy doesn’t have a lot of “action” per se, but it is hard to forget the two and a half minutes of non-stop brutality that is presented to us. Filmed in one uninterrupted sequence, Oh Dae-su battles an endless number of psychotic prisoners in one cramped hallway. He does win at the end of the scene, which is easy to predict since it’s only halfway through the movie. However, we’re still never sure about that, because each punch, stab and hit is so raw and visceral. We can feel every beating, because it is clear how much Oh Dae-su is actually trying to keep on top. There are moments where you really aren’t sure if he will get back up, and it is exhilarating when he does, which is also something you can say about a majority of the movie. This is just another testament to Park Chan-wook’s stellar directing, having each actor in the scene have their own individual liberty when trying to beat down our protagonist. There are many reasons why I consider this film to be near-perfect, and this scene alone is a prime example of that.
Of course, this is all a huge testament to Choi Min-sik’s perfect performance. The film blends several genres beautifully, and Min-sik is able to fully blend into his character, no matter what circumstance he is in. From getting arrested and throwing a hilarious, drunken temper tantrum, to coming to one of the sickest realizations a character can experience, we are able to see how much of a chameleon Min-sik is. One of the main reasons as to why that corridor fight scene is so thrilling and essential is because we can almost feel like we are in that corridor with Oh Dae-su. It is also worth noting how incredible Kang Hye-jung (Mi-do) and Yoo Ji-tae (Lee Woo-jin) are in their respective roles. Despite this film’s plot points being very distressing, there is also a strong feeling of empathy that we can get from these characters.
When Oldboy was first released in August 2003, it was the fifth highest-grossing film of that year. It instantly received critical acclaim, and has garnered millions of fans over the years, making it a certified cult classic. Earlier this year, Collider named it one of the most essential Asian films to seek out, and has also appeared in many ‘best of’ lists, including They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? 1,000 Greatest Films of All Time. To this day Oldboy is just as shocking as ever, continuing to break boundaries. It is a rollercoaster down the gates of hell, yet you never want to leave the ride. Having been re-released in theaters this past summer (through NEON) to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the value this film holds is still entering fresh minds, continuing to inspire aspiring filmmakers. This is a film that will continue to remain as one of the greats, as it is rightfully deserved.
Augie Brightman is a Sophomore Film, Photo and Visual Arts major who is probably watching Oldboy at this exact moment. They can be reached at [email protected]