Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

Seeking the Unconventional

After spending 15 years in prison, Oh Dae-su harbors a peculiar craving. He declares that he desires something living. It leads him to a restaurant where the chef serves a live octopus. Oh bites into the creature’s head without hesitation, savoring a mouthful while grappling with its wriggling body parts. The octopus clings to him, desperately seeking survival through automatic yet futile efforts. Notably, this is not a special effect. After four more rounds of the same ritual, his precision is flawless, and the creature’s tentacles cling desperately to his actor’s face as he chews. The dish is prepared by cooking, slicing, and garnishing it with pickled ginger, known as sushi. Consuming it without prior preparation imbues the act with significance.

In Oldboy, a film by South Korean director Park Chan-wook, poignant and profound imagery is utilized to craft symbols, employing ultra-violent metaphorical reasoning, sexual deviance, and torture to develop a narrative culminating in a genuine emotional confrontation. Park is an economical filmmaker who explores action, dark humor, and intricate motivations, with much of the film’s complexity only fully apparent in its concluding scenes.

Upon reaching this juncture, anyone who has watched Oldboy intensely desires to view it again. The compulsion for a second viewing played a pivotal role in transforming the 2003 film into a commercial and critical triumph. Swiftly, it became one of South Korea’s earliest cinematic exports to resonate with international audiences, marking the onset of a cinematic renaissance in the country. The South Korean film industry has undergone significant transformations since the Korean War (1950-1953), initially characterized by stringent controls on film production licenses during President Park Chung-hee’s tenure, followed by the relaxation of quota restrictions during the nation’s economic boom in the 1980s. The most substantial shift transpired with modernizing South Korea’s film industry to meet the global demand for enhanced production values, a transformation led by government intervention.

However, the natural agents of change were the members of the 386 Generation, named after the speed of Intel computer chips. Comprising individuals born in the 1960s, educated in the 1980s, and venturing into filmmaking during the computer era of the 1990s, this group placed a greater emphasis on creativity than resources. Their endeavors paved the way for successful domestic films, laying the groundwork for the Korean Cinema Renaissance in the 2000s.

Korean Cinema’s New Wave in the 1980s

Film expert Jinhee Choi notes that in the 1980s, Korean cinema underwent a New Wave period led by a group of filmmakers approximately a decade older than the 386 Generation. Unlike previous film movements, Park Chan-wook’s generation of filmmakers began creating movies not strongly influenced by the political turbulence of the times, such as the pro-democracy activism of the 1980s following the 1979 military coup or the uncertainties of the post-Cold War era in the early 1990s. These filmmakers from Park’s generation emerged without the immediate need for a political or democratic context to shape their work. Instead, Park and his peers gained recognition during the era of globalization, where the focus was less on nationalism and more on engaging in broader conversations within the international film community.

Oldboy achieved significant recognition by winning the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, with Quentin Tarantino heading the award jury. This success brought attention to Park’s other works, mainly because Oldboy was the second installment in Park’s thematically connected Vengeance Trilogy, following Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and preceding Lady Vengeance. Despite the absence of a direct narrative connection between the films, Oldboy became the artistic centerpiece of this trilogy.

The opening scene of Oldboy features Oh, who prevents a man from committing suicide by hanging, set to a score composed by Cho Young-wuk. Oh then proceeds to recount his 15 years of imprisonment to the man. It is the first time Oh shares his story in the film, and with each retelling, the meaning of his story evolves—from anger to tragedy and eventually to despair. Oh’s initial tale begins in the late 1980s when he was arrested and exhibited drunken behavior at a police station, including urinating on the floor, getting into a fight, and undressing. He was eventually bailed out by a friend, promising his daughter that he would return home soon. However, he mysteriously vanished.

When the film later reintroduces Oh, he has been locked in a dismal-looking hotel room for two months. The room has a shower, a bed, and a television, all enclosed by an iron door and brick walls. He is unable to leave. His captors, whoever they may be, provide daily meals through a slot in the door, typically fried dumplings. Periodically, an electronic jingle signals the release of sleeping gas. When Oh regains consciousness, the room has been tidied, and his hair has been groomed. The television becomes his lifeline, marking time as displayed in a montage of Oh’s escape attempts, interspersed with news broadcasts covering over a decade of South Korean history. The television serves as his church, clock, calendar, friend, and lover. Isolated and uncertain about why he was placed in this situation, Oh deteriorates mentally. He even envisions himself swarmed by ants and makes a suicide attempt to free himself, only to be exposed to the sleeping gas again, ultimately saving him.

Years of Enigmatic Captivity

This pattern persisted over several years, with Oh being utterly unaware of who was subjecting him to these circumstances and the reasons behind it. The television broadcasted the tragic news of his wife’s accidental death. In response, he swore vengeance, proclaiming his intent to dismantle his tormentors and exact retribution, going so far as to say he would “chew them all.” To occupy his time, Oh engaged in activities like watching kung fu and repeatedly punching brick walls, developing calloused fingers from his “imaginary exercises.” He wrestled with strange dreams and hallucinations, possibly induced by hypnosis. Despite these experiences, he maintained a lengthy roster of potential adversaries, and from his stack of notebooks, it was evident that Oh had not led an upright life. As he meticulously crafted his escape plan with great patience over the years, Oh suddenly found himself released by his captors.

Emerging from a box on a small patch of grass atop a rooftop, Oh was set free in a toughened and vacant state, driven by a single purpose: seeking revenge and driven by a hunger for retribution, which might also involve his plan to chew them all, Oh encountered sushi chef Mi-do, whom he had seen on television. She served a delectable meal of live octopus. However, before that, she received a call from one of Oh’s former captors, inquiring if he knew who did this to him—Oh ventured a few names from his notebooks, all needing to be corrected. The voice on the other end disclosed that he is a scholar, and his expertise is him. Just as Oh was poised to seek vengeance against those imprisoned, his tormentor had already initiated their pursuit of retribution. Indeed, the “how” of Oh’s escape was less significant than the “why” behind someone’s desire for such a dreadful revenge.

The emergence of revenge and horror films with an exceptionally intense genre sensibility became a defining characteristic of South Korean cinema imports for Western audiences in the early 2000s. These films were often marketed under the label of Asian Extreme by Metro Tartan, a prominent distributor of cult-favorite films. While only a few Korean directors managed to produce films that captured the imagination of both domestic and international audiences, at least from the perspective of U.S. importers. Bong Joon-ho generated considerable buzz with Memories of Murder before exceeding all expectations with Parasite, a film that claimed six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Kim Ji-woon also ventured into the U.S. market with his supernatural horror film A Tale of Two Sisters. While these films did add luster to the landscape of Korean cinema, gaining attention during a new commercial wave, they were often showcased in art-house theaters and festival circuits abroad. These screenings were alongside films less centered on violence and heavy bloodshed, elements often synonymous with Park’s earlier career.

Filmmakers like Lee Chang-dong and Hong Sang-soo, less interested in genre material, also found a place in the art-house realm. Only with the rise of internationally successful films by Bong could South Korean cinema break free from the art-house niche in the United States. At the same time, other examples often led to uninspiring English-language remakes.

Oldboy’s Breakthrough Status

Oldboy‘s reputation as a groundbreaking film primarily derives from its explicit violence, taboo themes, dark humor, and complex storyline—elements that created a buzz, making it a must-see movie through word of mouth. The initial revenge plot is merely a facade and becomes evident in the second act when Oh starts pursuing his former captors. Although Oh’s initial acts of vengeance may be sensational, Park has more in store than a straightforward revenge thriller.

What may seem excessive and bizarre initially is later revealed as a form of dramatic irony, requiring multiple viewings to fully grasp the narrative depth beyond its initial shock value. Obscured by subtle allegorical elements and an uncertain chain of cause and effect, Park’s cinematic atmosphere possesses a dream-like quality often described as Kafkaesque. The director has acknowledged Franz Kafka as an influence, yet he avoids straightforward allegory. Oh undergoes torment from hidden oppressors for unknown reasons, akin to Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial. Even after Oh’s release, he receives taunting, paranoid messages questioning life in a giant prison. At each turn, Oh and Mi-do, who have joined his quest, become aware of being under surveillance, creating a sense of suffocation as if Oh’s release is a predetermined path.

Furthermore, Park’s portrayal of insects draws inspiration from Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, another tale where isolation leads to transformation, self-reflection, and questioning reality. Following their meal of cephalopods, Oh finds himself at Mi-do’s home after a power outage. They both experience a sense of déjà vu. After perusing his journal, she comments on his ant dreams, which consume him from the inside out. She explains that lonely people tend to see ants, symbolizing the dreamer’s desire to be part of a collective or community.

Mi-do, too, dreams of ants, or more precisely, human-sized ant beings on a subway, sitting alone and isolated. Consequently, Mi-do, seemingly alone in this world, chooses to stay by Oh’s side, ultimately becoming a lover who adores and relies on him. Meanwhile, Oh tests his training theories by confronting five men loitering on the street, limiting their employment prospects. With Mi-do, he discovers the underground prison where he was held, searching for a Chinese restaurant named the Blue Dragon and the dumplings he consumed for 15 years.

Park’s Approach

Park managed to retain his audience, even with literary allusions, by employing straightforward language rather than intellectual literary themes. His primary goal was to narrate a compelling story with depth and cinematic language that undeniably held power. Oh’s pursuit of his gruesome revenge begins with the hotel manager, Mr. Park. After discovering the location of the hotel prison, Oh records Mr. Park and, using a hammer, removes one tooth for each year he was incarcerated. Subsequently, he ventures into a corridor teeming with henchmen from the hotel prison. The director and cinematographer, Chung Chung-hoon, adopted a tablo side-scrolling visual style for the intense brawl, where Oh overpowers twenty henchmen with his strength, sharp wit, and hammer.

The corridor fight, one of Oldboy‘s most iconic scenes, portrays an unconventional and desperate combat style, far removed from the typical martial arts displays seen in movies. Captured in a single, nearly three-minute-long take, it illustrates Oh’s increasing fatigue and has inspired numerous similar sequences. Martial arts coordinators have paid homage to it in elaborate corridor battles, including The Raid: Redemption. Although the fierce battle and Oh’s remarkable triumph initially cast him as a heroic avenger, his character undergoes a breakdown as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, Oh’s fleeting portrayal as a heroic avenger has led to misconceptions about Oldboy, categorizing it as an exploitative film that revels in violence for sensationalism. Superficially, Park’s description of various violent acts is ruthless, pushing the limits of censorship by implying gruesome actions like pulling teeth with a hammer, stabbing scissors into an ear, and cutting a tongue. These actions were chosen for their shock value, capable of confronting the audience through their sheer concept.

However, Park refrains from glorifying these acts and conveys the violence subtly by artfully editing the scenes, similar to how viewers often recall witnessing brutality in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The significance of the violence lies in its implications, as the revenge scenes in the film focus on the intense drama of the sequences rather than explicit gore. The power of these scenes amplifies their impact.

Straying from Conventional Thriller Narratives

Park’s direction, particularly in Oldboy, exudes energy, sensationalism, and even a distinct touch of comedy. These elements, albeit unique, might divert one’s attention from the depicted events, yet they also introduce unexpected aspects to the narrative. Park’s approach in constructing a thriller is far from the conventional hero versus villain plotline with a predictable outcome. Instead, he employs techniques like color saturation, deliberate attention to detail, and unconventional formal manipulation to align with the story’s ever-shifting and emotionally charged nature. The mise-en-scène would eagerly follow the rapidly unfolding narrative if his production lacked this vigor.

Park successfully balances style and substance, evoking pure emotional responses from his audience. Despite his intense and often gruesome imagery, Park intends not to overwhelm the viewers with sheer shock value. He effectively taps into our emotions, delivering dramatic, painful, and emotionally piercing blows, particularly in the climactic scenes. While Park’s aesthetics may feature expressive ornamentation, his approach never feels excessive. Instead, his creative choices are motivated by his characters’ psychology, driven by their motivations, slight madness, and the hypnotic suggestion theme prevalent in the film.

Park’s experimentation is evident in other aspects of Oldboy, and some production elements have yet to age gracefully since 2003. Notably, the CGI box used to depict Oh’s lower arm, with an emerging and crawling ant, shows its age. Additionally, the floating countdown clock employed in visual transitions hints at the limited resources available to Park during the film’s production. Nevertheless, Park and his fellow directors of Generation 386 often set themselves apart by their aspiration to master Hollywood and international cinematic styles. They borrow and adapt these styles to the context of South Korean cinema. Compared to earlier Korean films, the Park generation relied on imported features as sources of study and inspiration. In Park’s case, he is a self-taught filmmaker. Growing up in Seoul under the rule of Chun Doo-hwan, Park’s exposure to Hollywood movies came through the American Forces Korea Network. These films were often in English and without subtitles.

Back then, film schools were scarce in Korea, so Park pursued a degree in philosophy at Sogang University, where he established a film club. His education in the visual language of Western filmmaking was primarily self-guided through extensive movie-watching. It resulted in a unique cinematic style, distinct from a typical Korean aesthetic, reflecting the globalization of cinema and international influences. Park’s journey of self-education continued as he dabbled in creating short films and strived to secure support for his future projects. To support himself, he even turned to film critique writing. Throughout the 1990s, he worked as an assistant director, screenwriter, and producer. Park’s first breakthrough came with Joint Security Area, a thriller and murder mystery set along the Korean Demilitarized Zone. This film became the highest-grossing production in South Korea at the time.

Balancing Art and Entertainment

Like Hitchcock, Oldboy is a work of artistic discovery and self-expression that balances humor and art. The film’s intense premise develops into a darker narrative that draws from trauma and repressed memories while still being strangely captivating. The director strikes a unique balance between art and entertainment with Oldboy, giving both equal attention. The entire film is tense with drama, and like Vertigo, it becomes darker as the story goes on, exploring pain and repressed memories while also being strangely evocative.

The protagonists in Park’s Oldboy and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho are both sympathetic but damaged people who are gradually revealed through a series of layers. Unlike Hitchcock’s film, which focuses on the subject’s psychological agony, Park’s film highlights the undeniable connection between the mind and body by using great physical brutality to represent a horrible psychological condition. These films challenge us to think about and participate in deeply embedded subjectivity, self-destruction, retaliation, and sacrifice. They also handle obsessive cravings and damaged minds. In Oldboy, Oh discovers that Lee Woo-jin, his old high school friend, is the one who has imprisoned him after following a painstakingly constructed trail of clues hidden in mysterious boxes and perplexing phone conversations. Oh’s crime started while they were kids, in the 1979 Songnok High School class, where the alums are called the Old Boys. Oh saw Lee as a teenager, having sex with his sister. He related what he saw to a fellow student, and the stories spread so much that Lee’s sister committed suicide, with Oh hanging on to her at the edge of a dam—a sight reminiscent of Oh rescuing the suicidal man in the film’s opening scene.

Since his youth, Lee has been hatching schemes to exact revenge on Oh, using his substantial financial means to carry out complex plots. Through a post-hypnotic suggestion, Lee set up Oh’s meeting with Mi-do and planned their romantic relationship as incestuous retaliation. Oh is informed by Lee that Mi-do is his adult daughter, who Oh assumes is living abroad with a new family. Oh has a fierce thirst for vengeance, but Lee outdoes him. One of the scariest sequences is when Lee gasses Oh and Mi-do after their first sexual encounter and then joins them on the bed to admire his creation, caressing Mi-do’s naked hip as if she were the third member of a psychotic ménage-à-trois.

Emotional Impact and Enduring Influence

In Oldboy, Lee exacts cruel justice, comparing it to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Oh is pitted between his romantic love for Mi-do and paternal love for his daughter. He begs Lee not to reveal the secret and volunteers his tongue as punishment for gossip-mongering and to protect the truth from Mi-do. Lee twists his vengeful blade deeper, playing audio of Oh and Mi-do’s lovemaking.

After Lee’s horror show ends, Oh resolves to find the same hypnotist who helped coordinate Lee’s revenge and pay her to remove any memory that Mi-do is his daughter. Under hypnosis, Oh can live happily ever after with Mi-do, free of traumatic memories or the knowledge that they are father and daughter. Park’s film questions the extent of the old saying “ignorance is bliss, ” leaving viewers confused and traumatized.

The film’s emotional impact remains its lasting influence, brooding on the self-destructive vanity of revenge. Park challenges typical uses of explicit violence by symbolically deploying it to support his unforgiving, undeniably involving narratives. This visceral storytelling, told with rich visuals, impassioned style, and poetic purpose, makes Oldboy an enduring and unforgettable experience.


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