Oldboy (2003)

Original Title: 올드보이
Release Date: November 21, 2003
Comic by: Nobuaki Minegishi
Screenplay by: Lim Joon-hyung, Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Chun-hyeong, Park Chan-wook
Director: Chan-wook Park
Cast: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang

Dirty walls. A bed. A bathroom. A television. Meals that mysteriously appear three times a day. Complete and utter isolation. This is the existence for Oh Dae-su (Choi), who after a drunken night spent in a police station on his daughter’s sixth birthday is inexplicably kidnapped and held captive for 15 years. No rhyme, no reason. Mere heartbeats after hanging up with his daughter, a bag is shoved over his head and he wakes up in a dingy hotel room.

15 years. 15 years of waiting. 15 years of absolute silence, a creeping loneliness that haunts him, turning his confused thoughts into hallucinations about ants crawling from his very skin. 15 years etched into his hand with a makeshift tattoo needle made out of a notebook wire. Then suddenly, he wakes up inside a suitcase on a roof – new suit, new cell phone, new life. Freedom? The new phone that he finds in his pocket rings. The caller informs him that he has five days to figure out who kidnapped him and for what reason – all this in the first 30 minutes of the film.

It’s a story about loss. No, more than loss. It’s a story about unconscionable emptiness, an emptiness that either leaves you wanting or births a rage in you that propels you to fill it. In his journey to understand this bleakness, Dae-su-shi meets Mi-do, a young woman as full of life and promise as anything he’s ever come across. A young woman who’s nearly half his age. However, a twisted romance unfolds that soon turns into something quite terrifying.

Let me just come clean. Oldboy is one of my all-time favorite films. The darkness in it is so palpable it almost reaches out and traces its soft finger over your flesh, leaving goose bumps in its wake. Park’s camerawork coupled with Tsuchiya’s story brings to the screen an experience that is at once confusing to some viewers yet sweepingly beautiful to others. It’s mystery, yes. But it’s also romance, action, drama, and an overwhelming sense of impending fear that runs its course until the dynamic ending sequence. The snapshots of Dae-su-shi’s life after getting his freedom are spectacular displays of emotion masked in ferocious coldness.

Then there’s the crispness of the actors themselves. Dae-su-shi’s tormenter, Woo-jin (played with chilling precision and fearlessness by Yu Ji-tae) is a study in complexity. He’s unapologetic, unwavering. Yet there’s morose pain buried deep in his gut that wriggles its way into your soul. For his part, Choi Min-sik is astonishing as the hapless protagonist bent on revenge. Kang Hye-jeong as Mi-do also serves as a soft anchor to the imminent rage throbbing underneath the surface.

As the first in the Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy may have also been the series’s best. It’s dark, painful, and in the end a film comprised of resounding sorrow. Park Chan-wook’s most infamous film is a master class in building suspense, not for a resolution, per se (almost halfway in, the viewer already realizes the ending). However, the way in which it unfolds is both repulsive and glorious, a grisly realization of the frailty of humanity. It’s truly a film that captures the essence of stony silence, yet leaves the mind full of so much noise it’s a wonder most didn’t come away screaming. And yet the pain in the film was enough to break my heart and keep me shivering from the effort to hold back threatening tears for days after.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

The screening times for Oldboy at the 3rd Korean Film Festival in Australia are:

Sydney: Friday, August 24th at 10pm (with a Gangster Dress-up Contest)
Melbourne: Saturday, September 8th at 9pm (with a Korean Cult Film forum)
Brisbane: Friday, September 28th at 8:45pm (with a Gangster Dress-up Contest)

For more information, including ticketing information, visit the KOFFIA website.


As unexpected as my path was to loving all things weird, more unexpected is my ability to get attention for writing about the stuff.

19 Responses

  1. Mirella says:

    Awesome film! I remember I watched it with my brother, whom I invited and dragged with me because it was scheduled late and I didn’t want to come back home alone. He loved it almost more than me XD One of his more recommended movies besides Cidade de Deus, Tropa de Elite and [REC].

    • Camiele says:

      @Mirella, OH my god YAS! Cidade de Deus is definitely in my Top 10; however, the fact that Lil’ Dice thought shooting people was just a fun game… that shit haunted me for two weeks after I saw it. Like… did you see the absolute JOY on his face when he was MURDERING people like he was playing a video game?! It, in fact, affected me more than the ending in Oldboy.

      But, yes, I actually watched it on my computer at uni, with earphones on… the SOUNDS were enough to do me in… HaHa!

  2. amy says:

    I’m not sure I would say there’s shades of romance… xD there was always something off, I think. You know when you’re cold and all of a sudden you get splashed with really EXTREMELY cold water. Oldboy felt like that to me, and I felt like one of those people running around in the snow in the freezing cold, and you know it’s cold, yet you dive into the freezing cold water, and it’s all fun and great and the best thing you could ever feel.

    I haven’t re-watched it, though. I gotta admit I’m quite afraid of it. xD

    • Camiele says:

      @amy, Well, the little thing with him and Mi-do started of trying to be adorable and romance-y. Obviously, we know that didn’t work out too well.

      HaHa your analogy, though… yeah. I knew there was something not quite right, then when the told me what it was… yeah, it still shocked my body, even if my brain knew exactly what to expect… HaHA. I don’t think of it as something to fear, just something to be a bit wary of. HaHA.

      • amy says:

        @Camiele, must be my bias against older men and way too young women, then. Their relationship always rubbed me the wrong way xD I think my brain liked the movie partly because it threw all my preconceptions of that and gave me this turn around. I don’t think that before I would have expected people would keep this ending in a Box Office hit nonetheless. O_O

        Actually, the popularity of Oldboy in Korea, the Korean audience impresses me. xD

        • Camiele says:

          @amy, That makes sense if it’s already something that creeps you out. But, in its defence, I guess, Mi-do was 21, 22? Dae-su-shi was at least 40, but it’s nothing too crazy if both are consenting… HaHa. But, I definitely get where you’re coming from.

          That ending WAS pretty intense for something that did so well commercially, at least, as you said, in Korea. I don’t know how it did in the States, but it sure has one hell of a cult following, if nothing else.

          Just out of curiosity, what surprises you about how the Korean audience accepted it? I admittedly don’t know much about Korean culture… I know they’re pretty conservative as far as hetero vs. homosexual relationships. But I don’t know much else.

        • amy says:

          @amy, most of my korean friends (if not all) always suggest Park Chan Wook or Bong Joon Ho (unlike their dislike for Kim Ki Duk xD). The commercial success of Oldboy in the States is limited to the subtitled-viewing audience xD

          I don’t think they’re so much as a conservative society, as much as a “we don’t talk or show” kind of people, which I guess it’s an Asian thing. If you talk one on one with a close Korean friend, I think you’ll find that they’re open up to anything. But, of course, there’s a lot of control in the media, specially in regards of sex because the rating board is… well, conservative like in the US. xD Sex in general gets you an easy 15/18 older… a homosexual scene I suspect would be as diving in Korea as it is in the US. (I haven’t seen any PG13 LGBT-centered movies or shorts).

          What surprises me the most is that Oldboy, as violent and as twisted its ending was, was able to be a hit as well as being considered for the Academy that year. LOL I mean, dude. It’s the Oscar. They’re never gonna bait with a movie with that kind of ending. But Koreans did it.

          It saddens me that people think of Oldboy as somehow cult just because it’s got subtitles, when it’s just a piece of really great commercial flare. Any commercial hit in non-English countries could be a commercial hit in other parts used to subtitled-Hollywood commercial hits.

  3. Camiele says:

    @amy, I don’t think because it has subtitles that it’s considered cult. I think it’s considered cult much in the way that, say, Suspiria is cult or even something like The Last Dragon is cult. It didn’t get a great deal of fanfare and make a killing at anyone’s box office. But it’s different than anything in the States. The idea, at least in my eyes, is original, especially as far as the actual camerawork is concerned. The story telling was spot on, the characters were incredible, but it didn’t have a lot of success… hence cult.

    I don’t think it’s as commercial as you make it out to be. I don’t see anything like Oldboy in the States, certainly not since its release. And incest, even accidental incest, is not exactly something that sends people to the cinema clawing for more. As far as I’m concerned, anyway, there’s so much more to it than just “great commercial flare.” Beyond the fact that it’s somewhat action, there’s nothing particularly commercial about it.

    • amy says:

      @Camiele, I mean it’s commercial filmmaking in that it sparked the Korean Vengeance film cycle. It’s gritty action like Hollywood can’t get away with. In any case, I’m not saying that the Korean audience is awesome because they made this particular film a B.O hit, but in general when you hear a Korean movie makes a BO splash, it tends to be decent… whatever the genre it is. I’m surprised Sunny became the hit that it was mainly because it’s a chick flick, and an awesome one at that.

    • amy says:

      @Camiele, Oh, by the way~ we do have a post on Korean Vengeance films. xD

      • Camiele says:

        @amy, I know. I’ve read it. Anyway, the only point I was making is, no, the subtitles don’t make it “cult”. The actual film itself is cult in the States because it’s so removed from anything that Hollywood would even attempt to make, and if they did it would probably be some half-ass attempt at “getting away with stuff” — namely, they think that showing sex between anybody is “pushing the envelope”, so they just throw it in anywhere to show how “cutting edge” they are. In that way, how this film ended would just be a bit too “interesting” for American tastes, and they’d probably go for a water-down version.

        However… Spike Lee’s doing a remake, right? So maybe it’ll be okay. Though, even if it is Spike, I’m still kind of hesitant that it can be as good as this one was.

        • amy says:

          @Camiele, but the number of subtitled commercial hits are almost non-existent in the States, unless you count maybe movies like Amelie or Crouching Tiger, which are both still considered foreign films (at least, Crouching Tiger is more art house). Then, I don’t think too many French viewers consider Amelie anything too great, and I think a lot of Chinese people thought Crouching Tiger wasn’t that good either.

          In any case, another country’s commercial hit is another country’s cult hit. xD

  4. Camiele says:

    @amy, I guess my idea of cult is that it’s a film that’s not exactly successful critically or commercially but still has a following that’s very close to it. The Faculty, for example. Did decent at the box office. Didn’t do great critically, and yet it’s got an intense cult following of people who absolutely ADORE that movie. Crouching Tiger wouldn’t be considered cult because it did well — though more for what it looked like than what it actually was. Still it was commercially successful and critically successful in the States — but it didn’t have to do with the subtitles. It had to do with the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make films like that, or at least at that time it was completely different stylistically than anything here. It may be considered the norm in China, but not in the States; however, it’s not a cult film in the States because most everybody loved it — as the box office itself showed.

    And though you’re right that there aren’t many subtitled commercial hits in the States (because Americans, as we know, are lazy, self-righteous, and completely ignorant and hate to actually be involved in a film that they can’t understand… can you TELL I think very highly of my home country), the subtitles themselves don’t distinguish cult from commercial. Cult just has to do with the audience that follows the film, usually a small(er) audience. And that’s where I’d place OldBoy… because it’s so stylistically different, that’s what made mainstream America shy away from it, while those who took the film for what it was (a relatively small American collective) loved it.

    • amy says:

      @Camiele, yeah, but Oldboy was a critical success. It’s just considered a cult outside Asia because it didn’t make any or much money. The fact is, a lot of foreign films are considered cult just because they’re foreign and never reach “the mainstream” because they have subs. Maybe if these films had been done in English (god forbid!), they would have found a broader audience. Dragon Ball is a pretty huge example of something that is popular, but it never went past otaku fan popularity until someone had the bright idea to show it. But to this day, Dragon Ball as big as it is, it’s still considered an “anime” thing.

      • Camiele says:

        @amy, I think that’s an odd reason to consider something cult… just because it’s foreign and has subtitles. I don’t consider cult any sort of specification except to say that it’s got a smaller following. I guess people who don’t follow a certain film, subs or not, would say it’s cult simply because it’s got foreign, especially if it has subs. I guess I’m just of the mind that cult has more to do with content than anything else.

        I don’t think this would’ve gotten a broader audience if it were in English, though. If anything, it wouldn’t have been made because I don’t think American (or any other mainly English-speaking country) would be able to handle it in a way that’s as “classy” or at least interesting as those who made it. Americans, though they try to be all “we’re against the grain” are really conservative and really sheltered as far as how to handle violence and sex. In the end Hollywood’s still a bunch of preteens who just learned how to say swear words… anything resembling “adult behaviour” is considered too taboo, too mature, or too out there.

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