20 Years Later, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy STILL Packs A Gut Punch!

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New York
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20 years ago, Director Park Chan-wook unleashed a force of nature that was ahead of its’ time. I missed out on seeing it back then. Neon has re-released this masterful film in theaters and I knew it was the perfect moment to finally take in this beloved movie and see what all the talk was about. Wait, why are we talking about a movie during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes? Great question. I am SO grateful that we get to talk about this film because Neon is NOT a struck company being represented by the AMPTP. Also Neon has films that are under an interim agreement with SAG-AFTRA which allows those projects to continue. This means Neon is able to agree to the terms that SAG-AFTRA are requesting – which the big studios are pushing back on. All the more reason to celebrate and highlight this film.


Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in “OLDBOY”. All rights reserved by Neon and Show East.

Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is abducted and held captive for 15 years in an apartment-like prison. While inside he learns that his wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect. Over time, Dae-su loses grip with his reality and attempts suicide multiple times only to be revived by his captors. Dae-su then begins to pass time by shadowboxing a wall in his cell and also slowly chipping away an escape route through another wall. Then he is suddenly released after being sedated and hypnotized, with no rhyme or reason. Dae-su makes it his mission to discover why this was done to him and seeks vengeance on his captors. He gets romantically involved with a young woman, Mi-do (Kang Hye-Jung), early in his quest for retribution. As the mystery of who did this to him and why unfolds, Dae-su’s life becomes more twisted in a way that no one is expecting.

l-r Kang Hye-Jung as Mi-do and Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in “OLDBOY”. All rights reserved by Neon and Show East.

As mentioned, I had never seen this film until my recent viewing in a theater for this 20th anniversary screening. I didn’t know what to expect. Somehow, I was able to avoid spoilers for 20 years and I am SO glad I did too because there are things in this movie that you have to experience yourself for the first time. The only thing I was very familiar with was the now iconic hallway fight scene oner. Director Park Chan-wook spoke about this scene in a recorded interview after my screening with Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive, Neon Demon).

He says that it was really shot that way out of him being lazy and not wanting to shoot a bunch of coverage. That gave me a good laugh. Also he had noticed during rehearsals that the actors were getting worn out and tired as the rehearsal went on. He loved that idea and wanted to showcase this element in that scene. For me, that is one of my favorite details about that scene. It’s not super stylized, no wire work, everyone is struggling to even breathe. You can FEEL the exhaustion in that scene. Also you can kinda imagine what it would smell like, it just looks like it would kinda have a smell. You cannot deny the lasting impression this scene alone has had on other films and TV shows.

centered Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su in “OLDBOY”. All rights reserved by Neon and Show East.

I am a BIG nerd about cinematography – all hail Daddy Deakins. Naturally, one of the things I LOVED about Oldboy was the cinematography, specifically the camerawork. Chung-hoon Chung was the DP on Oldboy and his use of camera movement for me was ahead of it’s time, playful in moments, while also keeping with older styles of camera movement, such as using zooms. The cinematography is very much a part of the unique DNA of this film and why it stands the test of time after 20 years. The shot composition is another element of the cinematography that just fits so damn well. Nothing feels out of place in terms of camera and lighting.

The cast is solid with Yoo Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin – our main antagonist, Kang Hye-jung as Mi-do – the love interest, and of course Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su – our protagonist. Min-sik’s performance in particular is remarkable given he had to display so much range and physicality in this film. When the twist is revealed, Min-sik makes sure you feel what he is feeling. His performance only amplifies the already unthinkable and shocking revelation that no one sees coming. I don’t think I was the only one who was viewing this movie for the first time, because during this reveal it was absolutely silent in the theater.

l-r Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su and Kang Hye-jung as Mi-do in “OLDBOY”. All rights reserved by Neon and Show East.

So much of this film was NOT what I was expecting and in the best way. Especially how Park Chan-wook was able to find such an incredible balance of visceral violence, heartbreak, and humor. It is simply amazing what Chan-wook has created here. There have been a considerable amount of revenge films throughout film history, but very little if any come close to what Oldboy has achieved and the impression it leaves on the audience. It’s a masterclass in film making in every way and while it isn’t a film for everyone – given the subject matter – it’s a film just about everyone SHOULD see.

OLDBOY was written by Garon Tsuchiya, Nobuaki Minegishi, and Park Chan-wook adapted from the Manga of the same name. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Starring Choi Min-sik, Kang Hye-jeong, and Yoo Ji-tae.