Action films often are presented with a sense of predictability; they are expected to include violence in the form of fighting, fiery explosions, heart-racing car chases, badass men with muscles and a damsel in distress. These tropes are the DNA of the action genre, which for many is exactly what they want from a movie, however, within all genres of film there is an opportunity to create something that diverges from the norm in order to leave the viewer astonished by what they’ve just seen. Park Chan Wook’s 2003 film Oldboy intends to do exactly that and with inventive storytelling, stylistic fighting sequences and shocking twists that leave the audience reeling, Chan Wook’s movie became a masterpiece for the genre.
Oldboy opens with protagonist Dae-su who supposedly has everything to live for, yet seems unappreciative of his wife and daughter at home as he’s seen intoxicated at the police station, causing a ruckus while waiting for his friend to come and rescue him. When his friend makes a phonecall in a phonebox to Dae-su’s wife, Dae-su wanders off into the bright lights of the night. When he gains consciousness, he is found imprisoned in a what looks like a hotel room, without any understanding of who put him there or why they put him there. Everyday he is fed, watered, allowed to watch TV, sometimes receives a haircut and before bed is played music with an unknown gas that fills the room until he promptly passes out. This becomes Dae-su’s routine for the next 15 years, in which he starts to devise a plan to find out who ruined his life once he escapes, something he is close to doing after spending years using a chopstick to chip away at the bricks behind his bed. One day he is unexpectedly released, and it is from here that his journey of revenge begins.
South Korea have become known for their incredible filmmaking, and Chan Wook’s skills became even more noticeable and known through this film. Oldboy isn’t a simple action film, it pulls on the ropes of neo-noir and thriller, a combination that delivers the audience with an epic journey of a film from start to finish. Through the film there is a strong character development, however, it is never clear whether Chan Wook intended for us to feel empathy for Dae-su or to simply reason that even though he may not be a saint, he is still human and does not deserve the fate that he has been committed to. Perhaps it is the latter that was the intention, as there is a prominent quote that reoccurs: “Even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?” These words are first uttered by a suicidal man that Dae-su meets in his first moments after being released from his captive holdings. It is in these words that we begin to have thoughts of morality and whether those who have done wrong truly deserve the punishments that are inflicted upon them.
Oldboy is a film about redemption, revenge and becoming a monster in order to defeat another monster. It focuses on how our past lives can have heavy consequences on the present, regardless of whether or not the actions taken in the past life were truly understood at the time. Throughout the film Dae-su is trying to uncover the reasoning behind his imprisonment, and what sin he committed in his past that led him to such a gruesome and torturous suffering. Every alleyway he entertains seems to lead to a treacherous path of people who want to hinder him and also help him; in one iconic scene Dae-su has to fight his way through an onslaught of men in a corridor, and even though he is drastically outnumbered, he has the will of a man who has already lost half of his life and has nothing to lose, which gives him a violent advantage over the never ending stream of men. Even though Dae-su leaves every man crippled, that does not mean he is not harmed; this scene not only provides the audience the fulfillment of violent action through fighting, it also reminds us that our protagonist is just a man with no skills, he’s not an unstoppable fighting machine that we so often see in action films. He is a character that has been wronged so badly that his determination is fuelled purely by wanting justice and knowledge of the truth.
Despite being categorised as an action film, Oldboy is not as simple as that – through his rightful obsession with redemption, Dae-su becomes the detective of his own story trying to solve the case that ruined his life, which gives the film a neo-noir vibe to it. Some of the key themes seen in the noir genre are revenge, paranoia and alienation, all of which are more than prevalent in Chan Wook’s film. This crime element also typically comes with a love interest, no neo-noir film is complete without a young and beautiful woman that captures the heart of the protagonist, giving them more of a reason to fight, but also an obstacle they must protect from those who wish harm. In Oldboy this woman is Mi-do, a quirky and captivating young woman who takes a liking to Dae-su as soon as they meet each other in the sushi bar. She is fascinated by Dae-su’s presence and even though he acts barbarically towards her during their second encounter in Mi-do’s apartment, she is more than understanding of what he has been through and continues to stay by his side through the entirety of his journey for revenge. Both Choi Min-sik who plays Dae-su and Kang Hye-jung who plays Mi-do unwittingly convince the audience of their enigmatic pull towards each other, allowing us to become entangled in their romance and passion, something that soon becomes very important.
One of the aspects that causes Oldboy to have such an impact, and stand out as one of the most important action films not only from South Korea, but also globally, is how it marries all of the above tropes with an ending that leaves us feeling disturbed. The only reason I first stumbled across the film was due to my penchant for mind-bending films that have a disturbing tonality or twist to them, which is exactly what is delivered in the finale of Oldboy. Chan Wook deliberately moves away from atypical action movie endings with Oldboy; there are no explosions, no fight scenes that happen when jumping out of a plane and certainly no traditional happy endings that leave the whole family with a sense of heartwarming feelings. Dae-su comes to the ending of his journey once he uncovers who imprisoned him, and the reasons for doing so. When Dae-su was a young boy, he was witness to a brother and sister engaging in sexual activities with one another, and instead of taking the secret to his grave he started a rumour around his school and village that ultimately ended in the sister’s death. The brother, Woo-jin, found he could not forgive Dae-su’s young and foolish mistake and therefore took to imprisoning him for 15 years as punishment for the sins he committed as a boy. However, for Woo-jin that wasn’t enough, he needed something that mentally destroyed Dae-su for life. Both Mi-do and Dae-su were hypnotised during the 15 years, in order to forcibly fall in love with each other once Dae-su was released; their meeting was staged, their lives entwined by carefully executed trickery, all that culminated in their passionate lust and love for one another.
But who is Mi-do? Woo-jin explains to Dae-su how he has been raising Mi-do ever since she was a young girl when he father inexplicably disappeared and never returned to herself or her mother. The father that unwillingly abandoned Mi-do was Dae-su. This depraved and debaucherous revelation is delivered to Dae-su and the audience as the shocking twist that makes this film more than your standard action film. We see the quick unravelling of both onscreen characters; Woo-jin in a psychotic state of euphoria at completing his quest for revenge against the man that caused his sister and lover’s death, and Dae-su in a manic state of heartbreak and disgust at completing his quest for the truth behind his imprisonment. From a Western perspective it might be difficult to understand how a rumour, which was also true, could lead to such a harsh punishment; however, from an Eastern perspective, they are dedicated to honour and how a family would be seen by others, therefore the rumour is a breach of disrespect, which is a seriously damaging thing. It is this boundary-pushing and shocking twist that takes Oldboy into a new league of action film, and really doesn’t play by the usual rules of how an action film is structured. Which is one of the reasons that makes this a movie that stands the test of time and stands out amongst a saturated jungle of prolonged fight scenes and macho men. Chan Wook gives hope to the audience, talks about morals, the difficulties of being a human, finding true love and a taboo issue that we often prefer to disregard.
Oldboy is so much more than an action film; it takes the viewer on a journey through a life destroyed, rebuilt and abolished once more. It teaches us lessons about consequences from our actions, the need to get revenge and find truth, and how human nature is something that cannot be controlled even by our conscious thoughts. Park Chan Wook took the action genre and made it into something else.