The 20th anniversary of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy has brought the movie back into theaters, in a newly refurbished and remastered 4K version that’s launched plenty of online write-ups on the movie’s historical and cinematic value. Those pieces certainly aren’t wrong — the film’s 2003 release was a watershed moment for Korean cinema in the international market, and its stunningly grim and bloody one-take battle, with the protagonist fighting his way through a hallway jam-packed with mooks, has inspired endless copycats and homages, from The Raid: Redemption to Netflix’s Daredevil to The Princess and all the way up to James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.
But the real reason to check out Oldboy in its theatrical run isn’t because it’s an important part of action-movie history, or because it’s a startling and thoughtful spin on a popular manga series. It isn’t even because Oldboy currently isn’t streaming anywhere. The best reason to see it is because it’s one of the most startling and immersive action movies ever made, a film built around an unbeatable mystery and grounded in shockingly raw, frank violence. All the directors inspired by Oldboy over the years weren’t just celebrating the innovation of that memorable hallway fight, as if no one had ever thought about people fighting in a hallway before. They’re paying tribute to the way so much of Oldboy’s unforgettable imagery got under their skin.
The movie kicks off with a short introduction that quickly leads to that central mystery — drunken Korean businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is nabbed by unknown forces and locked in a dilapidated hotel room, with no warning or explanation. He tries to understand who he angered or wronged, looks for a means of escape, and slowly loses his mind as years and then more than a decade goes by. He learns from the television in his room that his family has been destroyed, and that he’s been framed for crimes he didn’t commit. And then he’s abruptly released, again with no warning or explanation. His entire life is gone by then — his job, his home, his wife and child, his friends, his sanity, even his sense of self — and there’s nothing left to do but seek answers. And, obviously, vengeance.
“Roaring rampage of revenge” movies are an incredibly common form of violence fantasy, especially for movies with angry male protagonists channeling an audience’s sublimated desire to be free of societal restraints and family obligations. From Point Blank to Mad Max to Taken to the John Wick movies, cinema has mined a vein of dark fantasies about men who have everything taken away from them and feel justified in doing absolutely anything for payback.
But Oldboy stands out in a crowded field because of that core idea, clear from the movie’s first chapter, that whoever turned Oh Dae-su into a single-minded revenge engine did it on purpose. The question of who kidnapped him and why is less mysterious than the question of why he was released, and why there’s a clear trail of narrative breadcrumbs leading him to his captor. The answers are still shocking 20 years later.
Director Park Chan-wook has since moved on to more genteel (though still extremely well-crafted) movies, but Oldboy remains his signature work — the cornerstone of his “vengeance trilogy” of thematically but not narratively linked movies about people going after retribution and losing their humanity in the process. As the cinema historians are noting in their anniversary appreciations, Park opened international doors for Korean cinema, and kicked off an entire wave of dark Korean neo-noir movies in imitation. Plenty of directors learned from him, particularly about how to stage signature central fight sequences in constricted areas where the audience can feel every inch of forward movement as a hard-won victory.
But few directors have imitated Oldboy’s emotionally intense and openly grotesque ending, which taps into deep taboos and presents violence so visceral, it’s hard not to physically feel the worst of it as it’s happening. It’s a movie of extremes, including a still-stunning sequence where Oh Dae-su, in a moment of particularly destructive nihilism, eats a live octopus, tearing it apart with his teeth as it flails against his face. (No effects were used; Choi, a devout Buddhist and vegetarian, actually did eat multiple live octopuses to get the shot.) It’s the kind of movie that plays a push-and-pull game, putting the protagonist in a situation that should earn him audience sympathy, then making him so grotesque that he becomes an object of revulsion and fascination. It isn’t a movie for the soft-hearted or the easily repulsed.
But it is a movie that leaves a mark — a must for action fans, mystery fans, and extreme-cinema fans, for anyone who’s constantly hoping a movie will surprise and move them. And it’s a must for fans of conspiracy movies who think they all inevitably fall apart in the final act. Park pulls no punches with Oldboy, and he also doesn’t let the audience down by letting his narrative fall apart or go to rote, obvious places once the mysteries are finally unraveled. Oldboy is a real experience, and it’s worth experiencing in a theater during this window where that’s possible again.
The restored 4K version of Oldboy is now in limited theatrical release.