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?
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.