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THN’s Korean Cinema Style Week 9: Park Chan Wook – Oldboy

Oldboy MAIN BWNext year will see three of South Korea’s most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors present their English language debuts. Kim Jee Woon, Park Chan Wook, and Bong Joon Ho have already proved themselves in their homeland, and here at THN we are taking a look back over their past efforts. We’re currently looking at the films of Park Chan Wook, join us each week over the course of the next few months as we explore The Land Of The Morning Calm.

Director: Park Chan Wook

Year:  2003

Cast: Choi Min Sik, Yu Ji Tae, Kang Hye Jeong, Ji Dae Han, Oh Dal Su, Kim Byeong Ok

Plot:  A man is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years for no apparent reason. He is then released and given 5 days to solve the mystery of who had him imprisoned and why.

OLDBOY is 10 years old this year, hard to believe that a film can remain so striking after simply dozens of viewings. This year will also see Spike Lee’s remake hit the screen. OLDBOY will most likely forever stand as the film that all Korean films will be judged by thanks to its accessibility as a heart pounding thriller and the fact that it’s a daring film with unspeakable shock value which never feels contrived. It is the second in Park Chan Wook’s astonishing revenge trilogy and is completely different in tone and construction than its predecessor SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE. OLDBOY certainly deals with the theme of vengeance, but this is a much more entertaining film as it masquerades as a mystery film noir, and lures us into feeling gratification at protagonist Oh Dae Su’s (Choi) vengeance. However, by the end of the film we are forced to feel the guilt of allowing this rampage to enthral us so.

Even the title itself brings many questions and possible interpretations with its ambiguity. There is a clear explanation given for its use later on, but it can also be read in many ways. First of all it’s an obvious oxymoron with two conflicting ideas placed next to each other. We see later in the film how things that really shouldn’t go together sometimes do. It also describes Dae Su’s character, as an immature but adult drunk towards the beginning of the film and how his captivity keeps him isolated and in that childish state of mind in many respects.

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As a sharp dressed, but wild haired man, holds a man by the tie, seemingly dangling him off a building, he decides to tell us his story. We’re soon transported back to view a man named Oh Dae Su drunkenly rambling in a police station. The whole scene was improvised by Choi Min Sik, and it’s a brave way to first show us this character. He a loud and obnoxious drunk, but again we’re sort of entertained by this, much like the violence and vengeance also captivates us. We take on the perspective of the police themselves, watching Dae Su, but never intervening. Before long he’s taken away by pal Joo Hwan (Ji), but as Joo Hwan talks on the phone to Dae Su’s family, Dae Su; unseen by us, is taken away. It’s a dark and rainy setting, but Park Chan Wook’s decision to focus on the phone call rather than the abduction, means the disappearance is just as confusing to us as it would be to Joo Hwan.

This is when we delve into the confusing world of Dae Su’s capture. Alone in a hotel room, he is kept there for 15 years. In that time he writes a journal, tattoos the years on his arms, and chisels out a brick with a single chopstick. His only friend is the television which acts as his only window to the outside world, but when he discovers his wife has been murdered and he has been framed, it is clear that this friend is a cruel bringer of truth. With no explanation and no date given for his release, Dae Su does well not to stumble into insanity, although his hallucinations of an ant crawling out from under his skin and then a swarm consuming him. Dae Su also begins to train himself in his own brand of fighting. Park does a wonderful job of taking such a small area and transforming it into an entire world with expertly crafted camera angles and beautiful framing. The editing also gives us a distinct passage of time which is very important in understanding Dae Su’s pain and anguish. They could have simply ended the scene with Dae Su sporting a ridiculously long beard or some other generic device, instead we are shown how he is gassed regularly to have a haircut. The care taken with Oh Dae Su is confusing and infuriating. This punishment is worse than death in many ways, mainly because absolutely no reason is given for it. Dae Su may not be a very pleasant man, but he certainly never lets on that there is something he deserves punishment for.

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One of the signs that Dae Su is about to be gassed is that of a creepy tune playing from a bizarre picture. This piece of music is amplified and expanded upon for the film’s terrific score, courtesy of composer Shim Hyun Jung. It’s a score that is so powerful, that although I couldn’t recall it by heart, after having not seen the film for 4 years as soon as that music came on during the DVD menu, I was transported back to my first viewing. Like the symbolic ants, the tune really gets under your skin and when it lets loose it simply consumes every part of you. This is in stark contrast to Park’s previous film, SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, where music was incredibly sparse and sounded like people rubbing balloons and scraping forks on dinner plates. That was cruel and unsettling, much like the tone of the film, whereas OLDBOY is all about leading us into a false sense of security.

Just before Dae Su’s release, he is visited by a hypnotist, and once again more questions are raised. This is an event that hangs over the entire film, just what has he been hypnotised to believe/do? After being released he makes his way through the world in search of his old life, only to find that his daughter was adopted and moved to Switzerland and the place he was kidnapped from is now an apartment complex. He meets a young sushi chef, Mido (Kang), who takes him in and decides to help him in discovering the mystery behind his capture. Upon their first meeting, Dae Su declares he wants to eat a living thing, and thus commences one of the film’s iconic moments. Actor Choi must devour a live octopus, an act that took a number of takes and the sacrifice of four of our eight-legged friends. Seeing the octopus wriggle around in Choi’s mouth gives a feeling that no CGI could ever recreate. It also captures Dae Su’s need to bring pain to a living creature at that very moment, or perhaps just his need for contact with a living thing.

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Dae Su decides to use his extraordinary detective work to track down where he placed during his capture. And when I say extraordinary, what I mean is, he goes around tasting dumplings until he recognises the taste he experienced for 15 years. He follows a delivery boy, and what ensues is a tremendous sequence of unforgettable ingenuity. With hammer in hand, Dae Su takes on a corridor filled with attackers. It’s shot in a stunning single take as the camera tracks down the corridor. Shooting the scene in such a way isn’t just because the editor was lazy, but because it shows Dae Su’s passion and resilience without ever giving us a breath. The scene is strikingly believable, despite the insurmountable odds. Each time Dae Su manages to injure one of his previous captors, the rest of the gang seem more apprehensive about attacking. The DVD release offers the same scene, but with multiple cuts. It is nowhere near as effective as what made it to the final cut.

Not long after, Dae Su finally meets his captor (Yu) who gives Dae Su an ultimatum. If Dae Su can figure out whom he is and why he has done this to him, then he will kill himself. It’s that moment where we know if Dae Su travels down this road he is going to hate what he finds; after all, curiosity killed the cat. What that proverb didn’t warn you about is that there is something a lot worse than death. Unfortunately, despite our connection with the character, we too must simply know exactly what is going on, no matter what the cost. Dae Su’s investigation leads him to think back to a time he had forgotten all about, an insignificant moment for Dae Su, which had great repercussions for others.

Film Title: Old Boy.

The final confrontation is something of incredible tension and stunning revelations. Dae Su travels to his captor’s penthouse, along with his captor’s bodyguard Mr. Han (Kim), the kind of odd looking and mostly silent character that you just know could destroy anyone he shares a scene with. There are a few scuffles, but as Dae Su’s captor fills us in one the ins and outs, this is truly a battle of words. Unfortunately, Dae Su’s punishment was not the captivity and much worse is still to come. Yu manages to suddenly twist his calm and sadistic character into a somewhat sympathetic antagonist. He has his reasons for doing what he did, and although excessive, as the audience we have to admire his cunning plan. By this point, Dae Su has become his reason for living and in many ways he seems to fear the end of his revenge. The violence in this scene, and throughout, is deceptively restrained. It is rare that Park shows us the complete image, which forces our imaginations to go to dark and sinister places. A technique that gets us involved as film watchers, and doen’t just leave us as passive sponges.

OLDBOY forces us to confront what it is we want as a viewer. Thanks to an ambiguous ending, we are left wondering if lies really can be better than the truth, will love conquer all and which of the moments in life we consider ‘insignificant’, will have a life altering effect on others. The pacing is so beautifully laid out that we never once feel rushed nor confused. Part of the reason is that Dae Su’s captor really does want him to discover the truth, and so helps him on his way whenever needs be. You’ll probably never forget the first time you watch OLDBOY and rarely has a film been so entertaining and confrontational at the same time. Spike Lee’s remake has a lot to live up to, but there is certainly enough here to change around and explore different facets of the themes.

What To Take To STOKER? I really hope to see any mystery elements handled and revealed as well as they are here. The ever increasing sense of doom is also something that Park does well and is guaranteed to keep me hooked. With Clint Mansell handling the score, you can be sure the music will be just as powerful as OLDBOY’s.

STOKER is released 1st March 2013. It stars Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska, Dermot Mulroney, Matthew Goode, Lucas Till, Jacki Weaver, and Alden Ehrenreich.

OLDBOY, Spike Lee’s remake, is released 11th October 2013. It stars Josh Brolin, Shalrto Copely, Elizabeth Olsen, Samuel L. Jackson, and Lance Reddick.

You can find all the articles in the series here.

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Luke likes many things, films and penguins being among them. He's loved films since the age of 9, when STARGATE and BATMAN FOREVER changed the landscape of modern cinema as we know it. His love of film extends to all aspects of his life, with trips abroad being planned around film locations and only buying products featured in Will Smith movies. His favourite films include SEVEN SAMURAI, PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, IN BRUGES, LONE STAR, GODZILLA, and a thousand others.

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