The Top Ten Project #5: Oldboy
Over the next few weeks I'm going to be counting down my ten favourite films from the last decade. The only way to make a list like this is to be completely subjective. I will look at the films that most influenced my own taste. We finally get to the top 5 and things are sure to get interesting from here on in... Number 5: Oldboy
5: OLDBOY (Dir: Chan-Wook Park, 2003)
MIFF2003: Festival director, James Hewison steps up to the microphone to personally introduce Oldboy as it was one of his favourite films from Cannes. “I've only got two things to say. One; you will never look at dentists or squid in the same way again, and two; you are about to be hit by a freight train!”. My imagination may be creating things but I'm sure he ran out of the cinema cackling. He wasn't wrong on either of those points. Unaware and stripped of any expectations, Oldboy absolutely smashed me. As the credits rolled I sat in complete silence. After a minute or two I turned to look at the guy sitting next to me. He was staring at the screen, not moving, mouth agape, even possibly dribbling. I bumped into some friends out the front and one of them had temporarily taken up smoking again just because of this film. I have never seen anyone suck a cigarette down so fast!
In the years following that night I rewatched Oldboy multiple times. I pulled it apart and studied its dynamics and structure. I was truly obsessed for a time with the way it propelled its narrative and some of Chan-Wook Park's stylistic devices were truly original. I can't really watch it anymore sadly. It's one of those films you just pull apart and rewatch so many times that it can never be put back together again (humpty dumpty joke anyone?). It still is one of the most important films of the last decade though.
Oldboy was the torch-bearer of a new movement in cinema coming out of South Korea in the first years of the millennium. Park was its star mascot and Oldboy was the call to arms. The story of a man imprisoned without explanation for 15 years then released just as suddenly was a bullet of a film. It turned convention on its head revealing its big bad early in the story and switching the key question from “Why did you imprison me for 15 years?” to “Why did you let me out?”.
This ultimate revenge tale culminated in one of the most surprisingly twisted revelations I had ever experienced and the ultimate conclusion was imbued with such a strong cultural authenticity that this film could only have ever come out of an Asian country like South Korea (we still wait with baited breath over the US remake. Would you believe that at one point Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were connected with the project? No, I am not joking).
Chan-Wook Park made Oldboy as the second in his thematically linked Vengeance trilogy after Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and before Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. While Park's earlier works are all very strong pieces of cinema and come highly recommended, it was with Oldboy that he truly took his stylistic ingenuity to another level. There are some fantastically innovative moments in Oldboy. The most discussed highlight is of course the single take fight sequence that takes place in a narrow hallway. The camera slowly tracks from left to right as our central character demolishes his opponents with the infamous hammer! It's a brilliant piece of cinema which apparently took 3 days to shoot. Elsewhere Park's inventive scene transitions propel the film with a degree of kinetic energy that is lacking in most cinema.
The film is not totally flawless unfortunately. Repeat viewings reveal an odd clunky-ness to some of the exposition that comes late in the film and a bit of the pacing is off near the end too but really, these are only the small niggles of someone who has seen the film multiple times and wants it to be perfect. Sadly Park hasn't reached the masterful heights of Oldboy with his more recent films. The final Vengeance film was very strong but slightly thin and his following film, I'm a Cyborg and That's O.K was inventive but dramatically quite flat.
Most recently he has hit a career nadir in my opinion with last years vampire film, Thirst. I know Park has more great films in him. Even in his weakest works there is a degree of innovation to his coverage of the most simplest moments. He is still in my mind one of the most creative directors working in cinema at the moment.
Oldboy was an important movie for me. It gave me one of my best cinematic experiences of all time. It introduced me to South Korean cinema and began a multi-year fascination that only recently waned. But ultimately Oldboy is just a damn well-made, entertaining and wholly original film. It'll stick with you.