Made Overseas: Oldboy (2003)

If the only thing you know about Oldboy is the hallway fight sequence, you probably think that this is a martial arts action movie.  The protagonist, Dae-Su (Min-Sik Choi), faces off an army of of thugs with clubs in a scene framed like it’s a side-scrolling video game beat-’em-up.  Like Final Fight or something.  Dae-Su swings his only weapon, a hammer, as his enemies try to push around each other to get a shot at him.  Dae-Su’s rage apparently lets him keep fighting on despite a knife sticking out of his back.  The fidget is shot in one long take, and it lasts for almost four minutes.

Rein in your expectations, though.  Despite this being the movie’s most famous scene, it doesn’t really prepare you for how bizarre and idiosyncratic the rest of the movie is.  It’s like only seeing the Pulp Fiction scene where Bruce Willis goes medieval and thinking that you’re in for an action movie.

In fact, I really can’t think of any other notable action sequences in the entire movie.  There is a final fight… but most of that consists of Dae-Su getting thrown through plate-glass windows. It also ends anti-climatically (which I assume was intentional.) The conclusion of the hallway fight is a better example of how most of the movie goes.  The elevator opens, and there’s an army of thugs waiting for him.  We fast forward to a short time later.  The elevator door opens again, and the thugs all fall down slowly as Dae-Su stands triumphant behind them.

Cue the fail horns!

Because when all is said and done, Oldboy… is something of a low-key black comedy.  Parts of it, anyway.  Though if I can be honest with you, it’s a tough movie to pin down.

Oldboy was based on a Japanese manga, where a guy is kidnapped off the streets and kept trapped in a room for unknown reasons.  After fifteen years, he stuffed into a suitcase and released into the city.  At this point the movie deviates from the manga significantly I haven’t read it, but Cinefix once did a comparison on their excellent “What’s the Difference?” video.  It seems that the manga is closer to being the standard action thriller I expected Oldboy would be: a straight up Death Wish scenario where the hero slakes his thirst for revenge.

The movie, though, gets more psychological, more surreal… and I assume more playful.  There’s a scene, for example, where Dae-Su lines up his hammer to knock out one of his captors.  A dotted line forms between the claw and a man’s forehead.  While the sets impart a grimy and worn atmosphere, Park Chan-Wook is definitely not striving for gritty realism.  That should probably have been apparent when it turned out that hypnosis and trigger words are key plot elements.

Dae-Su is driven to madness in his captivity, becoming more animal than man.  A sort of… manimal, if you will.  He has zero human contact; when someone enters his room, he’s gassed so he’s never directly addressed by his captors.  His only tie to the real world is the sole television in is room.  The captivity doesn’t end there, though, as his ties to the real world are severed irreparably.  His unknown enemy has framed him for his wife’s murder, and his daughter has been put up for adoption.  This is sad, because Dae-Su really loves his daughter.

Maybe he shouldn’t have worried, though. At the beginning, he’s a soft, relatively well-groomed drunk in a decent suit.  He’s transformed in to a crazy-eyed wild man with an unruly lion’s mane.  It’s a wonder anyone would recognize him.  I even had my doubts that he was being played by the same actor.

After he’s mysteriously released, Dae-Su begins looking for clues to find out the biggest question on his mind: why?  Why would anyone just grab him while he’s drunk and imprison him for fifteen years?  There’s a little bit of revenge, too, over the lost years of his life.. but it’s not as important as finding out the answers.  Every step he takes, though, seem to be orchestrated for him to see what his captor wants him to see … to an almost comically unlikely extent.  (At one point, the bad guys note that he takes the bait way too easily.)

He can’t even trust Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a pretty sushi chef who is inexplicably drawn to him.  Is she part of this strange conspiracy?  Dae-Su also chomps down on a living octopus, whose tentacles curl around his nostrils.  Much has been written about how this is Dae-Su reclaiming life.  I just thought I might do the same after what I imagine is a decade and a half of bland, processed food.

After watching Oldboy, I honestly didn’t know what to think.  This was a highly acclaimed Korean movie, but it was so weird.  The President of the Jury at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, but that made sense because that guy was Quentin Tarantino.  Ebert gave it four stars, saying, “In its sexuality and violence, this is the kind of movie that can no longer easily be made in the United States; the standards of a puritanical minority, imposed on broadcasting and threatened even for cable, make studios unwilling to produce films that might face uncertain distribution. But content does not make a movie good or bad — it is merely what it is about.”

I think this is when the acclaim surrounding Oldboy started to make sense.

Part of it is that Oldboy has become so influential that the far away era of a puritanical box office in 2003 is long gone.  You can feel its transgressive influences and cartoonish imagery with the works of Nicholas Windjng Refn or Matthew Vaughn. Oldboy feels like a Eureka! moment, like everyone collectively went, “I didn’t know you could do this in movies!” I’d say even Tarantino had a “come to Jesus” moment.  His post-2003 output seems to have gotten a degree raunchier.  If your main exposure to Korean pop culture is K-Pop and cute soap operas, it can be a little shocking that the same country also produced a film highly influential to Hollywood’s bad boys.

Shoot… Dae-Su’s captivity is basically Saw when you think about it.

The other is how many ways you can analyze and dissect and ruminate on the many strange themes the movie has to offer.  I was reading an analysis online, for example, of the parallels Oldboy has to Greek mythology.  I love this take, as those ancient stories can be given new relevance across time, national borders, and culture.  There are other elements to think of as well.  Whether it’s worth pursuing the truth or whether it’s better living a lie.  Or how, perhaps despite his captivity, Dae-Su seems to walk away actually a better man than before he went in. A commentary on the corrosive nature of civility, perhaps?  And what of the imprisonment?  Was this less of a captivity than when the prison becomes your entire world?

And…. check out how he’s eating that octopus, maaaan.  It’s… like… he’s learned to reclaim life.

Oldboy can currently be streamed on Netflix.

NEXT: Watch an elderly man do backflips for our amusement.  It’s Jackie Chan in Skiptrace.