Korean Films You Should Watch Before You Die #3

December 20, 2009

This is a guest post by Nick Mann.


There has been an unprecedented volume of replies and discussion on this site in response to David’s recent movies lists.  It seems nothing inspires and incenses like the almighty list.*

In the discussion of films of the 00’s, one Korean movie made the Gibberonica list, the Onion A.V. Club’s list and yet another list posted in the comments (compiled by Young Charles Mao-Spears).  I was planning to discuss this film much further along in my guest series, but it seems timely to bring it up now, since the list has provided such a fine segue.

The film I am alluding to is of course Oldboy and from an international perspective it may well be the most famous and influential Korean film out there.  I remember when the film hit theatres in Canada, presented by Quentin Tarantino and on the heels of other Asian cinema sensations like In the Mood for Love and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon I was intrigued and meant to check it out but never did.  I finally got around to watching the movie years later while crashing on my friend’s couch a week before I moved to Korea for over a year.  It was one of my few Korean cultural experiences, prior to actually living there.

I’ll just come out and say it – I don’t like this movie very much.  I think it’s really good in a lot of respects.  To begin with the performances by all the main players (Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong) are captivating and the baroque score is gripping, a perfect complement to the world depicted on screen.  More than anything else the mise en scene is exceptional – few modern films draw such attention to what is on the screen with bright colors, intense and detailed patterns, provocative angles and staging and so on.  The director Park Chan-wook has rightfully earned a reputation as an auteur for his work on this film (the middle in a series of three which focus on the theme of revenge) as well as others.

Stop.......Hammer Time!

The story is truly riveting from beginning to end and (unlike the average Korean film) the pacing is perfect.  However the themes that the film chooses to explore just don’t connect with me, and what I’m left with is a sense of empty spectacle, a piece of art produced simply for shock value.  And this film is extremely shocking – in terms of its brutal portrayal of violence and its disturbing treatment of sexuality – it is not meant for all audiences.

Here’s what I’d like: I’d like for someone who loved the film to explain to me what the filmmakers might have been trying to say with the piece.  There seem to be multiple layers to the film and at times I feel like I’m missing out on the full force of the film because I’m looking at it too literally.  Or did everyone who liked it just like the twist ending?  If so, that is so Nineties.

That’s all.  I know most of my posts run on and on, so this time I wanted to be brief.

I read two excellent reviews of the film (one positive and one negative) and I thought between the two of them, they touched very effectively on other aspects of the production that I might have explored.  Here are the links:

Koreanfilm.org – Oldboy

New York Times

When I was first researching for this post about a month ago I came across something on imdb that has since been removed.  It was so ridiculous it had to be a hoax, but I’m still sorry I couldn’t provide a link to it here.  It was an ‘In Development’ Oldboy re-make involving Steven Spielberg and Will Smith. How incredibly… ill-advised.

Korea receives news of Spielberg & Will Smith remake.

*I’m not bitter. Really. Just because no one wants to read 2000 word essays on Korean cinema.  I’m not bitter.

…haha. 😉

(NoteThe proposed Hollywood remake to be directed by Spielberg and starring Will Smith, as batshit crazy as it sounded, was no hoax. See Variety here. Fortunately, this remake is reportedly now “dead”.  –  David)



  1. NO WAY!! You found an article substantiating the Speilberg re-make?!! Where did you first hear about this?

    Anyways, great link. Makes me ashamed I forwarded it to you without checking the story myself. You are a top-notch blogger and I am your bitch (David’s allegations in the comments of a prior post are true).

  2. I think I first heard about it on Chud.com.
    People were fucking livid at the idea, especially when it emerged that the loophole they were going to exploit in order to avoid putting a live octopus-eating scene and (SPOILER!) the incest twist in a mainstream Hollywood flick was that they were going to be making a screen adaptation of the original Manga comic, not a remake of Park Chan-wok’s film. The comic wasn’t as extreme in that sense.

  3. You know, as brutal and affecting as this movie is, I’ve never really attempted to delve too far into it in terms of message. It was just a beautifully (sickeningly?) rendered, operatic exploitation film. That NYT critic’s description of it as “a B movie disguised as an A movie” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to me.

    Oldboy knocked me the fuck out when I first saw it, but Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance has more staying power. I love both of them, still, but I’ve watched and analyzed Sympathy more than Oldboy, simply because there’s more to analyze. I think it sums up everything about the revenge film. Oldboy is the popcorn version.

  4. Ha, just realized the “McShittlesquirtz” moniker is automatic now, whenever I come here.

    I’ve been branded by the Gibberonica…

  5. Great! Dialog on a Korean movie post.

    I re-watched the movie to write the article (of course) and I picked up on some some under-currents that may have been significant: a) the role of television. If you’ve ever been to Korea, you’ll know Koreans LOVE their television, and the fact that Dae-su’s only connection with the outside world for over a decade, has more significance with this inside knowledge.
    b) The evil guy fucking with Dae-su’s mind through hypnosis is an annoying plot device, but something that the hypnotist says at the end, echoing a line from his first encounter with the outside world after his release, makes me re-evaluate the importance of that scene.

  6. McShittlesquirtz: If you loved Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance you should know that I have a massive man crush for Song Gang-ho (actor who played the father in said movie).

    He is the best, most charismatic actor currently working anywhere in the world. There. I said it. And I’m likely to repeat that sentiment in Korean movie posts to come.

  7. As penance for your Heat naysaying thou shall henceforth be known as McShittlesquirtz, Josh.
    See, I even used your real name there but, knowing Nick, he will gleefully continue to call you by your new name of shame.

  8. I agree with what you’re saying above, Von Shechterhosen (keep up with the changes). I’ve always felt that revenge films, by necessity, are going to be exploitative. I find it quite impressive that a country which is, in many ways, far more strictly controlled in terms of what can or can’t be shown on screen can make a film that western audiences find legitimately shocking. Shock-value, coming out of Korea, is an interesting accomplishment, even if it amounts to something of a cinematic parlour trick (although I think there is still more to Oldboy than just that).

  9. Nick, I notice that the critic in the New York Times that you linked to said something along the lines of “we’re a long way from Peckinpah and Pasolini”.

    I’d be surprised if Peckinpah wasn’t equally as divisive in his heyday with some of his films and certainly Oldboy may not be quite the high art of Pasolini but the commercial appeal and accessibility of Park Chan-wook’s film was good for Korea and Korean cinema.

    Speaking for the UK, Korean films started cropping up in stores on the back of Oldboy’s success when they weren’t there before. That film was the Hallyu for Korean cinema in Europe

  10. The NYT review is a little too snobby, but I like reading reviews like that once in a while. I agree that the kind of filmmakers from days of old he’s pining for don’t necessary stand up to scrutiny. Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch for example loses a lot of it’s punch now that we’ve all seen much more violent films in the decades since.

  11. […] 3 Oldboy […]

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