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From Under A Rock: Oldboy

April 3, 2018 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Oldboy  


Sometimes a film gains a certain reputation, and you realize that you just have have to see it for yourself. This film in particular is impossible to discuss without spoilers, so we’ll preface it by saying this; if you have a strong stomach, go see Oldboy.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose Clone High. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him Oldboy.

Released: November 21, 2003 (South Korea)
Directed by: Park Chan-wook
Written by: Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong, Park Chan-wook
Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-su
Yoo Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin
Kang Hye-jung as Mi-do
Ji Dae-Han as No Joo-hwan
Kim Byeong-ok as Mr. Han

Aaron Hubbard: Oldboy is the kind of movie that makes you want to talk about it with others as soon as you’ve seen it. It’s not the first Park Chan-wook film I’ve introduced Michael to (that was The Handmaiden, but it’s certainly one of those movies this column was meant for.

Michael Ornelas: I knew the film had a reputation of being graphic and somewhat jarring, but I honestly didn’t expect it to be so compelling. I really enjoyed this. I mean, as much as you can without being classified as a psychopath…
Defying Genre Conventions
Aaron: I think what strikes me most about Oldboy is that it is such a strange beast of a movie. It’s equal parts a mystery movie, a dark romance, a gritty action movie, and a psychological horror film. The one take hallway scene with the hammer is one of the best action scenes I’ve ever watched, but I wouldn’t recommend the movie just for that. The mystery is compelling, but it goes to such dark, unsettling places that I almost feel guilty recommending it to most of my friends. It’s definitely a statement piece by Park Chan-wook, letting us know that South Korea has some impressive talent behind and in front of the camera, and that there are stories they can tell that are fresh and very different from a typical American movie.

Michael: Yeah, I don’t think I could pick just one genre for this film, but I don’t feel a need to. To me, “genre” creates expectations (I have a friend who dislikes Shaun of the Dead because it adds some emotional weight to it with Shaun’s mom later in the movie, and it goes against his perception of what a “comedy” should be. This angers me). It’s okay for a movie to have its own identity outside of the norms of our expectation and like you said, Aaron: Oldboy is many things in one surprisingly cohesive package (as it’s a blend of many things you wouldn’t expect to mix).

Aaron: To me, this is something that’s natural and even necessary if movies are going to remain compelling. If everything stays rigidly conformed to the rules of genre, we’ll eventually run out of new stories to tell, and that would suck. Also, your friend is silly; emotional weight is always a good thing.
The “Why?”
Michael: The driving force of the movie for me was “Why is this all happening?” And that question pushed Dae-su forward as well. It was to the point where Woo-jin was holding it over him. “If you kill me now, you’ll never know why.” This made me wonder if the filmmaker actually owes it to the audience to tell us why. It makes for a compelling story, but if they had denied us the reason for everything, and just showed us that it was happening, I may have enjoyed it just as much…though I’m sure the movie would be incredibly divisive if it took that approach.

Aaron: It’s pretty divisive as is. The eventual revelation of why Lee Woo-jin hates Oh Dae-su and the lengths he goes to in order to get his revenge are arguably the most disturbing parts of a movie that starts with a years long imprisonment. I’ve heard more than a few people say that it’s just shock value for the sake of shock value. I feel like there’s a bit more going on here than Park Chan-wook trying to traumatize his audience, but how do you feel about it?

Michael: It’s sick. But it’s incredibly compelling storytelling, and it’s something I haven’t seen before. Every “disgusting” thing in the movie was motivated by something that came before it, which inherently means it wasn’t done for shock value. It is still shocking, but none of it happened for no other reason.
Revenge and Disproportionate Retribution
Aaron: If the film has one theme that stands out about any other, then its a commentary on revenge. Dae-su is seeking revenge against the man who imprisoned him for fifteen years, only to find out that Woo-jin’s actions are his own twisted sort of revenge on Dae-su for the death of his sister. Is Dae-su truly responsible for that death? It’s a grey area, but I don’t think anyone can say that Woo-jin’s response to it is fair or appropriate in any rational way. It’s a form of disproportionate retribution; a punishment which far exceeds the crime. And yet, even with everything Woo-jin does to Dae-su, does Dae-su deserve his revenge? Woo-jin is a criminal who should be brought to justice, but the “eye for an eye” type justice only usually works in movies and fairy tales. It’s an interesting thing to consider.

Michael: No one even wins in the end. It’s tragic to all involved, which is the greatest commentary of all. It doesn’t glorify revenge, rather it shows you (in gruesome detail) that you will end up a literal shell of yourself pursuing it. And that your family can be innocent collateral damage in your hunt. None of it amounts to anything good, which is another reason this movie isn’t for shock value — it has a very clear message it wants you to walk away with.

Aaron: The evolution of the “Revenge Movie” is kind of a fascinating one to me. A lot of westerns were straight up revenge movies where one person did something bad and the solution is for the person slighted to get their revenge (True Grit, for example). But we’re all basically aware that revenge is not a good thing in real life, so we’ve had to change how we tell those stories. Quentin Tarantino makes old-fashioned revenge movies, but the revenge is an imagined revenge against great crimes like the Shoah and American slavery. And then there’s films like Blue Ruin, which have the revenge take place in the first act and spend the rest of the movie dealing with the very real consequences of it. I imagine that borrowed quite a bit from this movie, at least in terms of a general idea.

Michael: I really enjoyed this, despite how disturbing it is. Park Chan-wook has proven to us here at the column that he is a force to be reckoned with and a master at unraveling a complicated plot with twists you wouldn’t expect. It’s well-shot, expertly performed, and compelling to the very end. High marks.


Aaron: Michael basically summed up everything I feel about this movie. It’s a little too disturbing to end up in my all time favorites list, but it’s not far removed from that.


Michael: You’ve picked some truly great Korean films for me in this column. Any other notable ones for me? I can see why their ideas are often adapted for American audiences…

Aaron: I know you’ve seen Train to Busan, which is a notably different kind of movie but is so fun and worth seeking out.

Which Korean films would you recommend that we check out?

Next week:

Michael: Next week I’m bringing you one of my favorite movies about making a movie. I’ve probably seen it 20-30 times.
Aaron: I’ve never heard of this, but movies about movies usually tickle my fancy. I’m excited.

Michael: It’s an Eddie Murphy/Steve Martin comedy with one of the funnier premises I’ve seen in the subgenre of movies about making movies. You’ll love it.

What’s your favorite movie where an actor plays more than one character?

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The 411
Oldboy is not a movie we recommend for every person; it's a disturbing psychological thriller and a gritty, violent revenge movie. If you don't like tame versions of those, you're not going to enjoy this. But if you have the stomach, Oldboy is a compelling story with dark twists and memorable performances, filmed by one of the best directors on the planet.