OLDBOY AT 20: Director Park Chan-Wook Waxes Existential On The Re-Release

Unrestrained dialogue, and the potential benefits of rage.

By Dolores Quintana · @doloresquintana · August 25, 2023, 2:55 PM PDT
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OLDBOY (2003)

Director Park Chan-wook has made three horror films, the darkly romantic vampire film Thirst, the twisted story of a family with a serial killer for an uncle, Stoker, and Cut, a short film from the anthology film Three…Extremes also known as Saam Gaang Yi. Even in his not explicitly horror films, the levels of terror, violence, and gore show the audience that Park could easily make horror films whenever he chose to.

Oldboy, one of his most beloved films, was released in 2003, and as a celebration of the film's twentieth anniversary has been remastered and restored. A tragedy on the level of the classics, Oldboy will amaze and frighten you with its tale of a most patient and diabolical revenge.

It is the story of a belligerent drunkard, Oh Dae-su, who is kidnapped by a mysterious force and held in captivity for fifteen years. One day, he is released after being hypnotized, and the man who held him captive dares him to figure out why this happened. He returns to society to find his family is gone — his wife murdered and his daughter adopted. Oh Dae-su has no choice but to fight for his life and try to solve the mystery he has no recollection of.

Director Park Chan-wook told us about the reasons for remastering the film, why the remaster will not be bright and shiny, and how he wanted to explore existentialism and duality with this heartbreaking, shocking, and hilarious film.

It's been twenty years since Oldboy was released. Is there anything new in this version? Is it closer to, say, the version shown at Sundance, or is it the same version that was previously released?
There's nothing new. It's really quite the same. But having gone back to how we develop the film — we actually use this bleach bypass process. These days, you would add the DI effects later. But we actually did it physically on the film. That's how the bleach bypass process works. Because of that, we have this distinct look, and it came with a loss of resolution because we physically worked on the film itself. That resolution that was lost cannot be restored. When you imagine digital remastering, you imagine this clear saturated screen. We're not going to have that. But this distinct look was intended from the start, this grainy look that we see in the original Oldboy. So don't be too disappointed because you're seeing it just as it was intended.

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The film has several quotes that are a really strong part of the narrative, "Be it a stone or grain of sand and water, they both sink," and "Even though I'm no better than a beast, don't I have the right to live?" These aphorisms were central to the plot, and I wondered about the creative choice behind that.
So my previous film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, I wanted to go for a very minimalistic approach not only in the sense of the visuals but also in dialogue, which is why one of the main characters is mute. So, for Oldboy, I really had this desire to convey these emotions that you can't quite do through nonverbal cues on the screen. I have this big desire for more talking in the movie, which is why Oldboy has these different thoughts that cannot quite be conveyed through visual elements alone.

This was why these thoughts were conveyed in this very unrestrained dialogue. That's how those lines that you mentioned came about. Interestingly enough, actually, my thought process while I was writing the script was also reflected in the dialogue. For instance, the villain, Lee Woo-jin, tells our main character, "you've been asking the wrong questions, which was why you couldn't get the right answer." That was also a thought process I had in my head while I was writing the script.

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It seems like what Oh Dae-su was put through by Lee Woo-jin actually made him a better person. It taught him to be patient and silent when he had no control. Was that a comment on the different sides of our natures, like the more animalistic, impulsive, essential part of our nature versus the cerebral, ethical, and logical parts?
Overall, I really wanted to explore duality in this film. For instance, if we take a small example of television, people always say you become dumb if you watch television for too long. I wanted to ask if this is true. Because you gain all this different information from TV, you get to learn new knowledge. You might even become an intellectual from all that knowledge. You might also learn new skills from television. Depending on how you apply this act of watching television, is it possible that it could be good for you?

When this man has no exposure to the outside world, he's just left to always think about why he was locked up in this room. It's this very existentialist situation, and you're bound to ask these existentialist questions. Like, why was I born in Korea at this particular age and time? You have to think about these things. This room becomes a metaphor for existentialism.

This man lived in rage and hatred; all of this rage and hatred actually made him a more mature person. You could almost say that rage and hatred aren't always a bad thing. Perhaps not putting much thought into your life, not asking these existentialist questions, and always just going out drinking with your friends and having small talk — perhaps that's worse. This is the kind of duality that I wanted to explore in the movie.

Oldboy remastered is now playing on the big screen, check your local theater for showtimes.