I recently had to pick a film to watch for my Culture Through Cinema course. We had free range as to choose our film as long as it was not out of the horror genre. I have heard about Oldboy before from a friend who wanted to see it. I have read reviews of the film giving it praise and I decided to choose this film. I need to pat myself on the back because it was a good decision. I am going to give a brief overview of the cultural findings that I saw within the film.
Oldboy is a thriller film directed by Park Chan-wook and starred Choi Min-sik. Oldboy released in 2003 and received universal critical acclaim. The film was shot in South Korea and is based loosely off of a Japanese manga series that has the same title as the film. Oldboy happens to be the second installment in a trilogy of revenge films. Oldboy’s popularity led to its own American remake in 2013.
Oldboy begins with Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) being held in a police station for being publicly intoxicated. Oh Dae-su is drunk and missing his daughter’s fourth birthday party. A friend comes to pick up Oh Dae-su and they head outside to a phone booth so Dae-su can get into contact with his daughter. Dae-su stands outside the booth, while his friend speaks to his daughter, and Dae-su gets kidnapped. Dae-su wakes up in an apartment building where he will spend the next fifteen years of his life. Dae-su seeks revenge though he does not know why he was imprisoned. A mysterious hypnotist appears in his room and later he awakens in the outside world. Dae-su begins his search for his captor and along the way, he falls in love with a sushi chef: Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). Dae-su eventually meets his captor, who has been planning his own personal revenge for Dae-su for years. This leads to a dark twist that shatters Dae-su.
South Korean cuisine makes an appearance in this film and is actually important to the plot. In the first act of the film, Dae-su eats fried dumplings several times while he is trapped in the prison. This comes in handy for him though as the taste of the same dumplings leads him to the particular restaurant where they are served and he tracks a delivery man of the joint to the building where he was imprisoned. Another dish that appears early in the film is sannakiji, which is the eating of live octopuses. It is a delicacy in South Korea and is usually cut into smaller pieces for consumption. Dae-su eats one octopus whole after having an angry conversation with his captor.
Though the film is very dark, the score has several upbeat rhythms playing in the background. The score usually has a techno-based sound, which reflects K-Pop. K-Pop is a short acronym for Korean pop music, which usually consists of rap, rock, and techno. Although there is no dancing in the film, the music does come in handy for its fight scenes. The sound of K-Pop has actually made its way to the United States.
Gaming has become huge in South Korea and though there is no actual gaming in the film, there are a lot of scenes that take place at an internet café. An internet café is a public place that is filled with computers, where people can chat online or play video games. Dae-su’s friend, No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), owns an internet café where Dae-su and Mi-do go in an attempt to get into contact with Dae-su’s captor. The internet café is important to the plot, as it is not only the place where a major detail about the captor is unveiled, but where the captor kills Dae-su’s friend. The café does not even seem to be a place of joy even before Joo-hwan gets murdered. It is a very dark, moody place where there is not many guests.
The film’s setting is in various locations of Seoul, South Korea. The film does not place any emphasis on the architecture or the landmarks of the city, but it does reflect its temperate climate. At the beginning of the film, there a few scenes of rainfall. Rainfall in South Korea is heavier in the summer months than the winter months. Most of the parts the city that are shown are not particularly bright areas as it could affect the darkness of the plot.
The concept of Kibun and Korean family values are heavily intertwined within the film. Kibun does not have an English translation, but most believe that it is similar to pride, mood, feelings, or state of mind. Kibun also emphasizes maintaining peace amongst each other, which does not happen in this film. Dae-su potentially hurt his captor’s Kibun with his secret that causes his captor to seek revenge, which also hurts family values, as Dae-su told a devastating secret that was not true about his captor’s sister. Family ties plays a role in the film’s shocking twist. Korean culture values the family as it comes first before anything else.
Oldboy is one of the films that led to the world to take notice to South Korean cinema. It helped muster in the “Korean Wave” era, where Korean films have been noticed for their interesting plots and genius creations. It has caught the eye of Hollywood as Hollywood is in a phase of producing remakes, sequels, and superhero films. Another noticeable trait about current Korean cinema is that they are able to blend two genres together flawlessly and make it cohesive, while American cinema sometimes struggles to accomplish this feat. Oldboy happens to be a film that blends thriller, comedy, romance, and action into an unforgettable tale.