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Oldboy is a monumental film that, upon release, defied audience expectations and garnered significant critical acclaim. Now, 20 years later, Oldboy is still just as good, proving that its brilliance wasn’t just a flash in the pan. Directed by Park Chan-wook and based on the Japanese manga by Garon Tsuchiya, Oldboy has one of the most twisted stories to ever make it on the big screen. Without a doubt, this incredibly controversial movie has made its lasting mark on cinema.
Receiving positive critique from notable critics like Roger Ebert and the talented director, Quentin Tarantino, Oldboy stands as a landmark achievement in South Korean filmmaking. It can often be found nestled among other fantastic films in celebratory lists of cinema, despite its disturbing and graphic content. At the very least, we consider it one of the best thriller and mystery films ever made.
2023 marks the 20th anniversary of Oldboy, so we’re taking a deep dive into this monumental film, examining it in all of its shocking glory. We’ll quickly recap the plot (for those who might be too squeamish to watch it themselves), dig into some behind-the-scenes fun, and reflect on the legacy that Oldboy has created. With that said, let’s take a closer look at this gem of South Korean cinema and recount what makes it so special.
The Deranged Tale of Oldboy
Note: The following is a brief but all-encompassing summary of Oldboy’s story. It will contain spoilers and descriptions of disturbing content.
Our protagonist, Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik) finds himself in a tough spot when he’s arrested for public intoxication on the night of his young daughter’s birthday. Although he is picked up from the police station by a friend, Oh Dae-su mysteriously disappears without a trace. Waking up in a locked room that looks like a 2-star seedy motel, he begins a 15-year-long imprisonment, unsure of why he is there or who placed him in this private hell. With a television as his only source of information, he eventually learns that his wife has been murdered, leaving him as the prime suspect. Despite failed suicide attempts, Oh Dae-su uses the 15 years to train, growing stronger in hopes of one day earning revenge. At the end of his designated stay, he is visited by a hypnotist, and suddenly wakes up on a city rooftop.
Free from his prison and finally back in the real world, Oh Dae-su is hungry for the truth behind his kidnapping. However, as a wanted man, he cannot contact any associates for fear of being arrested. On impulse, he travels to a nearby sushi restaurant and eats a living octopus before passing out. Luckily, the sushi waitress Mi-do (played by Kang Hye-jung), takes a liking to Oh Dae-su, and starts to take care of him. With Mi-do’s help, Oh Dae-su gets closer to tracking down his kidnappers. As a pleasant bonus, the pair also fall in love and have sex, fixing the loneliness that both had suffered from. Eventually, Oh Dae-su finds the private prison in which he was held, and after torturing the warden for information, discovers that his true captor was a wealthy man named Lee Woo-jin (played by Yoo Ji-tae). When he is found and confronted, Lee Woo-Jin issues Oh Dae-su an ultimatum: figure out the reason he was imprisoned within 5 days or Mi-Do dies. If Oh Dae-su manages to figure things out, Lee Woo-jin will kill himself instead.
Over the following days, Oh Dae-su tracks down every lead possible and is eventually directed back to his old school, Sangnok High. After digging into some clues, Oh Dae-su discovers that a young classmate, Lee Soo-ah (played by Yoon Jin-seo), died of suicide shortly after he transferred to another school. Recalling an old memory where he witnessed Lee Soo-ah acting sexually playful with a classmate, which he subsequently gossiped about with a friend, Oh Dae-su finally understands everything. In a disturbing twist, it is revealed that Oh Dae-su’s captor, Lee Woo-jin, was the classmate in question and also Lee Soo-ah’s brother. Oh Dae-su’s gossip led to fierce rumors about the sibling’s incestuous relationship around town, which eventually drove Lee Soo-ah to suicide.
Having solved the mystery, Oh Dae-su triumphantly heads to Lee Woo-jin’s penthouse to confront him. Unfortunately, in a horrifying case where ignorance would’ve been bliss, Oh Dae-su learns an even more horrifying truth. In a disgustingly forethought act of vengeance, Lee Woo-jin hypnotized both Oh Dae-su and Mi-do long before they met, in hopes that they would fall in love. While creepy at face value, the true derangement becomes apparent when Lee Woo-jin reveals that Mi-do is actually Oh Dae-su’s daughter. When Lee Woo-jin threatens to tell Mi-do the truth, Oh Dae-su cuts off his own tongue as a self-sentenced punishment for the pain his gossip caused.
Satisfied that Oh Dae-su must now grapple with the guilt of his deviant love, Lee Woo-jin kills himself, his revenge now complete. Sometime later, Oh Dae-su hires a hypnotist to absolve him of his memories, in hopes that he and Mi-do can continue to live in happiness despite all that’s occurred.
The Brilliance Beneath the Bewilderment
Oldboy is brilliant on so many levels, but perhaps the best aspect is how the narrative perfectly balances so many themes without undercutting any given concept. The inciting action and premise of the first act is a thrilling examination of solitude. Watching Oh Dae-su grapple with 15 years of captivity, especially the range of mental torment he endures, is engaging enough that it could fill out the entire runtime.
However, it soon shifts into a sleuth-style, whodunit mystery, which keeps you enthralled in the unfolding drama. Pieces of the puzzle, those concerning the mystery at hand and the overarching narrative, are drip-fed to the audience with impeccable pacing. Meanwhile, important character development brews for the third-act reveal.
Speaking of that reveal, Park Chan-wook had some serious confidence to feature a twist where the main character is unknowingly raiding the sheets with his estranged daughter. However, this surprising case of incest is more than just a shocking deviation, as it retrospectively perverts a love story that the audience may have been rooting for. We want to see Oh Dae-su succeed, even though he’s kind of scummy. It’s also a poetic piece of justice from Lee Woo-jin’s perspective, as his revenge is a double-edged sword, granting Oh Dae-su simultaneous true love and endless torment.
These themes of love, guilt, and secrecy all come to a head at the movie’s end. After Oh Dae-su has the memories of his daughter wiped by the hypnotist, they reunite and embrace, leaving Oh Dae-su with a somewhat pained expression on his face. The film ambiguously ends on that note, offering no closure on whether the hypnotism worked or what the future holds for his relationship with Mi-do. It’s in this ambiguity that Oldboy provides its final departing gift, encouraging us to further reflect on its themes.
Oldboy’s Shocking Use of Violence
It’s also important to note how graphic violence is used (and intentionally not used) in the film, as Oldboy’s most shocking scenes have gone down in cinematic history. In an early scene, Oh Dae-su tortures the warden of the private prison by ripping out his teeth with a claw hammer. The camera does not shy away from bloodshed here, forcing the audience to endure a prolonged close-up as the dramatic backing score hits its natural climax. It’s arguably tame when compared to the gore seen in modern horror films, but Oldboy shows early on that it’s not afraid to show some stomach-churning stuff.
Interestingly though, the torture sequence is often overlooked in conversation, as many viewers cite Oh Dae-su’s tongue removal as the more disturbing scene. When Oh Dae-su picks up a pair of shoddy scissors and gruesomely cuts out his own tongue, the camera shows none of the grisly details, instead letting the audio speak for itself. In true Hitchcockian fashion, sometimes things are far more terrifying when our imagination is left to fill in the gaps. The tongue-cutting scene in Oldboy stands as a testament to that, especially when you consider the scenes that have come before it.
Brutality Behind the Scenes
Oldboy was also just as hectic behind the scenes, as the production had big hurdles along the way. One of the most iconic scenes involves Oh Dae-su fighting his way through dozens of cronies as he flees the private prison. This sequence, which features one long, unbroken panning shot, reportedly took three days to film. Minimal CGI was used as well, with the exception being a knife that is stabbed into Oh Dae-su’s back. Several other shows and films have replicated and paid homage to this brutal fight, including Netflix’s Daredevil series.
CGI was also completely absent in other gut-wrenching moments, including the scene where Oh Dae-su devours a live octopus. Since the production chose to use real, very much living creatures for the scene, this was undoubtedly challenging to film. Choi Min-sik, a vegetarian, said a prayer before taking the fatal chomp. Unfortunately, the scene wasn’t a “one and done”, as the sequence required four takes (and four different animals) to achieve the final shot.
Oldboy’s Legacy, 20 Years Later
With its memorable scenes of action and brutality, along with an unforgettable script packed with unspeakable twists, Oldboy has undoubtedly left its mark on cinema. It pushed South Korean filmmaking further into the eye of the average movie-goer, as Western critics continued to buzz about its mastery of suspense.
In the decades to follow, inevitable attempts to remake this masterpiece have cropped up. In 2013, Spike Lee directed an American remake that starred Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Olsen, and Sharlto Copley, but it flopped hard. Besides the standard needless changes you’d expect from a remake, it fumbled any ounce of subtlety or complexity in regard to the plot, coming off unintentionally comedic at times. That said, it probably fared better than the canceled remake proposed in 2008, which would’ve starred Will Smith in the lead role (with a PG-13 rating in mind).
Overall, Oldboy has all the marks of a great thriller. It’s unnerving, makes you squirm with anticipation, and has a twist that no one could’ve seen coming. However, its excellent cinematography, incredible action scenes, wonderful score, and outstanding acting performances push it far ahead of its peers by a substantial margin. It’s a shame that Oldboy isn’t more widely available, as a stint on Netflix or something similar would definitely reinvigorate interest in this classic South Korean thriller.