Tracy Likes This One: Oldboy, 20 Years Later

Aug 17, 2023 at 3:14 am
OldBoy plays at the Speed starting this Friday, Aug. 18.
OldBoy plays at the Speed starting this Friday, Aug. 18. Photo from film

The story of Park Chan-Wook’s “Oldboy” is is a tale from the height of videostore cinema. It was a glorious time when film fans passed around physical copies of movies, spreading the gospel of unusual and boundary pushing film with overheated recommendations.Tartan Video ruled the early 2000s, its Asian Extreme label a trusted brand for adventurous film aficionados seeking out the taboo-breaking films coming out of Japan and South Korea at the time. In Japan, Takashi Miike’s mind-melting “Audition” and Kinji Fukasaku’s instant cult classic “Battle Royale” heralded a new chapter in a long and storied film history. Across the way, South Korea’s film scene was just being born, having had a spotty film culture with very few titles known beyond its borders at this point.  

That is until 2003, when Park Chan-Wook used a hammer to create one of the most popular and respected films to come out of the entire Asia Extreme movement. This year marks the 20th anniversary of “Oldboy,” a film long out of print and missing from streaming services. To celebrate, Neon is releasing a 4k remastered print. The film was not widely released in the U.S. back in 2003, making this the first time that many American moviegoers will be able to see this brutal and outrageous classic on a big screen. 

Park Chan-Wook is a self-taught filmmaker whose lack of formal education translates to an original eye for detail and unusual mise-en-scene. His first critical and financial success was the action thriller “Joint Security Area,” a straight-forward and artful procedural about a shooting in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. The film went on to be the highest grossing South Korean film of its time, giving Chan-Wook a blank check for his next film. 

With that opportunity he made the wicked and colorful “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” the first of the Vengeance Trilogy films, linked together by theme, not story.  A wild departure from “JSA,” this time-jumping revenge film was a box office failure, but Chan-Wook doubled down in his next film and delivered a neo-noir splatterfest that is still his most notorious and financially successful film, “Oldboy.”  

Choi Min-sik plays the wild-haired Oh Dae-Su, a drunken lout who is kidnapped and held captive with no human contact for 15 years. When he is suddenly released, a cat and mouse game commences, and Oh Dae-Su seeks revenge against his unknown captor. Achieving his goal hinges on knowing why he was finally released, and the ultimate mystery is who is getting revenge on who. Based on a manga, “Oldboy” leans into the surreality of Dae-Su’s plight, creating grimy, uncanny spaces and sets. Chan-Work brings the camera close to the action, with long, uncut scenes of choreographed ultra violence. This camerawork, coupled with excellent acting from all the players, especially Min-sik, creates a cinematic tale more related to Greek tragedy than to its heir and successor, John Wick.  

In the twenty years since the release of “Oldboy,” superhero and action films have ballooned to three-hour affairs that deliver nonstop one-liners and giant spectacle, but at a safe distance in a non-real space where, often, death can be reversed. Queasy and upsetting films are relegated to home screens that are easier to turn off, packaged with trigger warnings. 

Spelling out the trigger warnings for “Oldboy” would spoil the film, so let’s just say it comes with all of them. Twenty years on from that heady time when extreme violence in film was raised to high art, it is harder for me to stomach aspects of this powerful and highly influential film. The way the lone woman character is treated in this film bothered me in a way I would have barely noticed in 2003. Whether to attribute this to age, a wearing down of my defenses, or a change in the zeitgeist, I cannot say. I prefer the experience of watching the third film in the trilogy, “Lady Vengeance,” another violent film, but one that expands the cast of characters so that vengeance is shared among a wide variety of powerful people. Park Chan-Wook continued making woman-centric films, including the creepy chamber piece “Stoker” and the sexy “Handmaiden,” both films that do not shy away from taboo ideas and presentation, but without depending on extreme violence to push buttons. Both of these films, as well as his latest critical hit “Decision to Leave,” owe more to Alfred Hitchcock than Sam Peckinpah. But it is “Thirst,” Chan-Wook’s funny and weird vampire film that is the writer’s favorite. It lands in a perfect sweet spot between the operatic excesses of “Oldboy” and the measured sexuality and tight mechanics of “Handmaiden.”  

“Oldboy” continues to be a gateway film, a gateway to the Asian Extreme movement, and to South Korean film in general. It is hard to believe the sheer number of excellent films that have been released there since just the year 2000, from “I Saw the Devil” to “Parasite,” there is no shortage of titles to explore. Hopefully, with the release of this gorgeous remastered print, “Oldboy” can again impress a new generation of fans who can then tap into this rich, recent film history.  

Oldboy (Oldeuboi)

August 18 -20 & August 23-24

$12 | $8 Speed members

Speed Cinema, 2035 S. Third St.  

www.Speedmuseum.org