Movies That Matter: Oldboy

I tend to think that anytime I type a word about Oldboy, somebody out there inevitably will react with exasperation. “Good God, Andy,” that person future-writes, “shut up about Oldboy already, it’s been almost ten years since it came out, find another film to gush over, damn.” So I’m paranoid. Sue me. In defense of my own neuroses, I have written about the film pretty extensively considering I’ve never posted an Oldboy review in this blog– I’ve just employed its name in numerous ( and frequently list-driven) endeavors since the inception of “Andrew At The Cinema”– on top of the comment threads of many, many others…when apropos, of course.

The truth is that I’ve made my sentiment on the movie clear so many times over the course of the last few years that I may never write up a full, formal review for my favorite all-time movie. But while there are a number of reasons why, among all the movies I’ve seen in my lifetime, Oldboy came to receive that highest of honors, none of them constitute this particular essay’s reason for being. Ignore the fact that Oldboy blends some of my favorite narrative genres ever into a cocktail of hard-boiled tragedy and retribution with visual top notes of dazzling aesthetic touches, underscored by quiet musings on class warfare and one of the best uses of cinematic space in contemporary film: Oldboy taught me an invaluable lesson in movie-watching that has served me time and again over the last ten years, one which all cineastes should learn at some point or another.

Full disclosure: I did not, at first, like Oldboy very much at all. I was all aboard for the first hour or so, but as Dae-su chased his memories through the school of his youth, Oldboy lost me. By the time the denouement rolled around, my brain was in open revolt. Where was the justice Dae-su so richly deserved? Why was he being punished further after his fifteen-year stint in the private prison? Who did Chan-wook Park think he was to deny me the violently gratifying climax that I so fervently believed the film’s set-up had promised? Grant me that that was in 2003, and I was nineteen at the time and arguably I didn’t know any better. “The folly of youth” also isn’t the lesson here, though, but rather the set-up– though that initial impression of the movie reversed itself in short order anyhow.

First viewings are often tricky things. We all know that reading reviews– be they from legit critics, film enthusiast bloggers, or users on IMDB*– can paint our expectations of a film in very warped ways, to the point that you feel like you’ve seen a completely different movie than the one that your local newspaper critic saw. Such was my reaction to Oldboy, a movie propelled forward by the Internet hype machine and the effusive praise of online journalists long before the property touched down in American cinemas. I’m not one to make inane arguments intoning that X film received good reviews either because it’s by Y director or from Z country, but I came very close to declaring Oldboy‘s positive reception a byproduct of people’s enthusiasm for Park’s previous film, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance. Blame the crushing weight of expectation, but I just couldn’t grasp at all what others had seen in the film that I hadn’ t and I was convinced they’d gotten it all wrong.

But the lesson here isn’t about hype, either. At some point between then and now, Oldboy went from being personally disappointing to one of my favorite films ever, ultimately taking the number one spot. So what changed my mind?

“I am regretting my life’s choices now.”

Like I said, first viewings can be tricky, and oftentimes they’re never any more slippery than when we try to reconcile them in light of subsequent screenings of a specific film. In my case, after a day of digesting Oldboy and going over where the film went wrong for me, I determined that the film needed another viewing (I had a copy of the region 3 DVD), and the rest as they say is history. I didn’t just watch Oldboy once later on that evening, I watched it twice. And it got better for me both times. To this day, Oldboy remains a film that improves and from which I draw something new with every single viewing. Which is well and good though it also makes me scratch my head over my fledgling response.

I don’t think it’s outrageous to state that as a rule, we’re not inclined to revisit the bad movies we watch. Sounds reasonable, right? In fact, it’s downright logical. At the same time, blanket rules like that can do a disservice to both us and to movies that, at first glance, we’re down on. That above all else may be my biggest takeaway from Oldboy— our reactions to films aren’t set in stone from the first screening. They’re subject to change. Few experiences, I think, are more valuable to film enthusiasts than bearing witness to the mutable nature of our opinions, and for that crucial lesson, Oldboy is one of my most essential movies.

On behalf of that, I invite you to pick out a movie you didn’t react to with overwhelming positivity, and give it a second chance. Or, if you’re feeling bolder, try the same with a movie you gushed over and haven’t seen since that first screening. Maybe your opinion won’t change– depending on the film and your personal response to it, your mileage may vary. But I think we should all be able to challenge the perceptions we hold about movies and dare to shift our own perspectives on them. Try it sometime; you might surprise yourself.

*If you’re a masochist, I mean.

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12 thoughts on “Movies That Matter: Oldboy

  1. Gotta say. I appreciated Old Boy right off…. to an extent. Obviously a very talented film. I saw why it got the hype – to a degree. But its brutality makes a revisit difficult for me. I know that the impact lessens with repeated viewings… I love Apocalypse Now, Scarface, Natural Born Killers and I remember those were all very difficult viewings originally too.

    But Old Boy never seemed to connect with me… I dont know why. I never saw anything past the revenge and the brutality (whereas the three movies above each SAY something to me. Oh, except Scarface, which has become one of my favorite comedies).

    Is there something I’m missing Andy? Make you a deal. I’ve got it on Blu Ray… talk me into it and I’ll rewatch again when I’m on vacation in two weeks. (Kind of hectic prior to that)

    • I can’t really make an argument for Oldboy without being biased; it’s just a fantastic, beautifully made movie that works on all levels, and manages to be poetic even at its most vicious and gruesome. But what specifically draws me to it lies in the revenge commentary and the movie’s structure. Oldboy portrays how men lead themselves to their own undoing in the pursuit of vengeance (not men as a rule but these men, Woo-jin and Dae-su, specifically), and underscores how the pursuit of revenge actually prevents these characters from assuaging themselves of the guilt and anger and hatred that burdens them.

      And I like that in between all of this big thematic stuff about the nature of vengeance and Park’s central tragedy, he’s able to find time to tell a story about class warfare in which Woo-jin, a businessman so unfathomably wealthy as to appear godlike, uses his resources to control and manipulate and sometimes even crush not just Dae-su’s life but the lives of others around him– and even a few randoms who have no connection to him. There’s so much going on in every frame of Oldboy, for me and at this point, that I’m never bored or disengaged from the story even after having seen it dozens of times.

      • I dunno. I should hit it again, I know I should. I mean, your article above is a great piece about WHY people should give movies second chances…. Maybe soon. I hate being the contrarian, and SO many movie geeks LOVE this flick. I must be missing something.

        • I don’t think having an opinion opposite to what one particular community holds as consensus makes you contrarian, I think it just means you have a different opinion. Going against the grain just because, now, THAT”S being contrarian. I hope you do give it another chance– but I think that about many, many movies.

  2. I pretty much fell in love with Oldboy the first time I saw it, I haven’t seen it in a while though. As for a movie I didn’t care the first time around, it was Gladiator. After I saw it in theater, I thought it was okay but I don’t know why so many people loved it. Then a few months later when it came out on DVD, I gave it another shot and I thought it was great, didn’t think it deserved best picture that year but I definitely enjoyed it more the second time around.

    BTW, since you’re a huge fan of Oldboy, what do you think of Spike Lee’s doing the American remake? Rumors going around that Josh Brolin will play the lead role.

    • It’s good to let yourself experience hyped up movies twice– sometimes the hype can make it really hard to buy into something that’s alleged to be totally incredible, and once you’ve gotten that out of the way you can more easily enjoy yourself.

      As for the Oldboy remake, it doesn’t need to be remade by anybody, even Lee. But Lee is a more compelling choice than other names that have been thrown around, and I think he might be able to do something interesting enough with the material to make the new film reasonable and possibly even warranted. Though I’d much prefer he be re-teamed with Denzel Washington than put together with Brolin– Denzel in the Dae-su role would be absolutely unbelievable. Brolin, of course, would be good too, but imagine America watching Denzel do the things that character does.

  3. I’d say Park Chan-Wook’s entire Vengeance Trilogy is good.
    I had a similar experience to what you described when I first watched Mulholland Drive. Originally, I thought it was a real piece of garbage, and for a long time after I didn’t bother watching Lynch, nor did I get just what others thought was so great about him. That was years ago. This year I’m just now obsessively watching Twin Peaks, even though the series ended about two decades ago. I think as viewers we aren’t naturally inclined to like challenging films right away.

    • Oh, I’d say the same thing. I’ve written about his entire trilogy in the past– it’s all-around excellent.

      Interesting thought– I don’t know if I necessarily agree that that’s always the case but I do think it’s true that a challenging film can often present something you have to warm up to.

  4. Nice introspective points there
    While it may seem flippant lol, but the movie that really amazed me the second time I watched it was Hot Fuzz, for almost the same reasons you have up there
    When I watched it the first time, I was left somewhat disappointed as the hype machine perhaps build up too much (and wrong) expectations in me
    Second time though (and on cable!) a couple of years later, the jokes actually made alot more sense, and I was able to pick up the more subtle jabs here and there. And it could just be because I knew abit more about the film industry, or more about the stereotyped elements associated with it

    Anyway, on the topic of Oldboy, when I caught this years ago, it opened my eyes that Korean cinema wasn’t all My Sassy Girl. Thank goodness my friend introduced it to me lol
    While talking about Asian cinema, have you caught 13 assassins yet? Awesome show

  5. Pingback: Off the Shelf…Oldboy

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