20 Years Later, ‘Oldboy’ Still Lives Up To The Hype
11:49 AM EDT on August 22, 2023
There are a handful of movies that come to mind when I think of DVDs or "the DVD era." The Matrix, Fight Club, Anchorman. It's not exactly science, but there's just this understanding between those of us who made a sport out of collecting and trading DVDs about which movies mattered during the format's ultimately brief run of dominance. It's not an accident that many of these movies also belong to a film-bro canon, as said bros tended to pride themselves on their well-stocked collections. The alternate takes and gag reels included with the DVD editions of movies like Anchorman and The 40-Year-Old Virgin mattered as much as the actual movie. The audio commentary of Armageddon is arguably as famous to film nerds as the movie itself. There are people who live amongst you that have The Matrix DVD welcome screen music etched in their memories forever.
Chances are, if you're an American, the first time you saw Oldboy was on DVD. It was a must-have/find, thanks to word-of-mouth descriptions of it being "totally fucked up." It was the kind of movie you refused to tell your friend a single thing about, just to live vicariously through their reactions to a first viewing. If social media or YouTube had been around, there's no doubt Oldboy reaction vids would've been a viral phenomenon. I saw Oldboy when I was 19 or 20 years old, for all the reasons a 19- or 20-year-old male film lover would want to watch it. I was told there was a fight with a hammer, something to do with an octopus, and a crazy twist. It was indeed fucking wild, but my main memories associated with watching the movie have to do with being satisfied that I could say I saw it, rather than any appreciation what I actually saw. I was not a sophisticated viewer at that time, and had no real outlook beyond, "Well, that was sick"—meant in both the positive and negative connotations that word can entail.
By 2023, when Neon acquired the rights to Oldboy (a notoriously hard movie to rent online) and announced a theatrical run in conjunction with the film's 20th anniversary, I was in a much different space as a film lover. And I had a much stronger relationship to and appreciation for the movie's director, Park Chan-wook, having watched the rest of the films he made. Different theaters are running the movie back, but I caught a showing at the Alamo Drafthouse in New York over the weekend. I wanted to watch it with fresh eyes, but more importantly, in the context of a director's work I'd grown to love.
Oldboy is loosely based on a manga of the same name. The movie version follows Oh Dae-su (an apt reference to Oedipus), a womanizing asshole spending his daughter's birthday getting arrested for public intoxication when he is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years in a jail that looks like a hotel (so basically a Motel 6) with no knowledge of why and who put him there. Over those years, he goes insane. He's given a TV to watch, which allows him to see a news story about his wife being murdered and him being named the prime suspect. He is fed the same dumplings every day, and his captors pump a dangerous amount of morphine-like gas into the room to put him to sleep (those last two aren't the worst ideas); particularly when Oh Dae-su tries to kill himself at different points of his imprisonment as he loses grip on reality. Eventually, he focuses his anger on training himself and digging a hole from his room to the outside world, seeking to find out who imprisoned him and kill them. It's not easy for Oh Dae-su to actually nail down who would even want to do this to him, because he's pissed off so many people and slept with many men's wives.
At any rate, as he feels himself getting closer to his freedom, he's hypnotized, dressed in a new suit, and stuffed into a suitcase. When he emerges out of it, he finds himself on a grassy rooftop of a building. He later gets a mysterious cell phone and a wallet full of cash dropped off to him, before stopping at a restaurant to meet a sushi chef named Mi-do and order a live octopus to eat (and man, that was a lot grosser than even I remembered it being). Mi-do looks on in amazement and seems taken with him instantly, you know, the way you do when someone eats a live squid in front of you. She briefly touches Oh Dae-su's hand and he passes out, so she decides to take care of him back at her apartment. Anyways, they soon begin the quest to find out who imprisoned him, though it's not exactly what either of them expect it to be. Now here, even after 20 years, is where I will stop, keeping any of you that haven't seen the film yet from knowing more than you need to. I will say that the movie still works even with the knowledge of where it's going; I noticed a lot more of the things hiding in plain sight this time around.
Over the years I've grown obsessed with Park Chan-wook's movies and his filmic style. He is something of a South Korean Brian De Palma, not just in his tendency towards the Hitchcockian thriller and that mode of showmanship in filmmaking, but also because he strikes me as a filmmaker who might be too smart and too darkly comic for his own good. Movies made with the sort of macabre sense of humor that Park Chan-wook possesses can wrong-foot an audience. I was thinking about this while watching a video he made for Letterboxd to mark Oldboy's theatrical re-release, in which he calls the film "a movie with the intention to make you laugh at every second" and "the most terrifying nightmare imaginable." Those descriptions are hard to reckon unless you can get on his wavelength. During my theatrical viewing, I found myself trying very hard to stifle laughter at incredibly inappropriate moments. Even the infamous hallway fight, which has spawned scores of imitations in action movies since, was funnier than I remembered. It wasn't a bad-ass spectacle, but a bunch of guys flailing wildly and losing their breath. It's an extremely playful movie despite all of its technical wizardry and melodramatic story beats.
Not to turn into your high school drama teacher, but Oldboy really is the rare movie that successfully wears the twin masks of comedy and tragedy. "Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone" is a common refrain that shows up in the film. Watching it a second time, I was more impressed by how much Park Chan-wook packs into what is ultimately a ridiculous idea for a movie. There's a comic-book artifice to it that he so commits to in a way that makes it all the more harrowing.
Oldboy was the second movie in Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy, though he didn't see it as a trilogy at the time. His next one, Lady Vengeance, is probably the best of the three, but it never got the attention Oldboy did, primarily for its ending. Oldboy's reception at Cannes built a buzz about it in the states, thanks to the early internet and influencers like Quentin Tarantino. It became a DVD you had to get, or rent or borrow, and it ended up being the movie that brought international attention to what was happening in South Korean cinema; it remains Park Chan-wook's defining movie, even after 2016's The Handmaiden became a big hit on streaming. Whether or not I agree that Oldboy is deserving of all this attention over other movies from his catalogue is beside the point. Park Chan-wook's obsessive fans, much like De Palma's, are going to have stronger opinions than what a mass audience might cling to. The important thing in the end is that he made a movie that changed an entire marketplace and put a foreign film scene on the map, and that it's still just as hilarious, violent, and terrifying in a theater today as it was on a friend's couch a decade ago.