#30. Oldboy (2003, Park)
First Seen in: 2006
I didn’t realize it had been so long since I had seen Oldboy, but that’s because the film sticks with you. I believe this was the first Korean film I had seen; actually I’m sure of it. Oldboy is a film where the mark of the overused violent revenge thriller pays off in new and exciting ways, even ten years later. It’s a film filled with delirious mania but it’s strangely funny and morbidly poetic at the same time.
Choi Min-sik, one of my favorite actors, is remarkable here. It’s a performance that moves across extremes. In one scene he can be stoic and hollow and in the next feral and feverishly physical. The scene where he begs is disturbing enough to begin with in context, but his performance pushes it to another level. I’ve never seen a character more desperate.
And that fight scene, my God that fight scene. I’ve revisited that particular scene many times but it’s just….it’s not just the ‘cool’ factor associated with pulling off a long take. It’s not just that it’s a fight scene. The one take here is doing something new. The distance and trajectory of it is like a performance art piece that showcases how far someone can push their body. This is perseverance, exhaustion, rage and bodily damage encapsulated, distilled. You feel the heaving, the sweat, and agony. It’s like a manga panel brought to bloody life. Ka-Pow.
Something I’ve noticed about Park Chan-wook is how obsessive he is with characters within frames, capturing them in poses, and using framing to further articulate characters in relation to the camera and each other. It can be used for humor, to accent a moment into our memory or to emphasize character. An example of this is the how Oh Dae-su adopts the face and motto of the painting in his prison room. When he smiles in pain several crucial times throughout the film, is becomes cemented for us and is also used to enhance character.
Park also has a tendency to expand time in the interest of moments but also condenses time through editing to create a slightly dreamlike sped-up linearity at all times. It’s not naturalistic; as Park says, he likes you to feel the ‘space between shots’. This de-emphaszies plot, putting a focus on the audience simply living in the film. I think it is this that allows the audience to easily go along with its more outlandish plot elements like the hypnotist.
Park and Chung Chung-hoon drown Oldboy in a sea of rusty grainy green, a world of grimy fluorescence with carefully placed splotches of red. It exists in nearly every shot, and Chung used bleach bypass to help get the seedy underground effect. It’s a very dark-looking film, and combined with the use of wide-angle lenses help make this a warped experience.
That final scene is just devastating, one of my favorite endings from any film. The ambiguous ending has become pretty overdone in recent years, often feeling like a cop-out. But this works because it’s a no-win and as an audience member you have to ask yourself which interpretation you prefer and it’s a tough one to answer. Like choosing between horrific and horrific.
One final thought; I forgot how much I love the score to Oldboy. It thumps and lulls and sways. It supports the ‘operatic’ quality of Park. “The Last Waltz” is a track I could listen to all day long. And have been.