Busan: Park Chan-Wook on How Blood-Splattered 'Oldboy' Shaped His Career

Park Chan-wook - 9th Beaune International Thriller Film Festival - Getty - H 2017
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The director attended a screening of his breakthrough thriller, which was chosen to help mark 100 years of Korean cinema.

South Korean director Park Chan-wook admits he still gets a bit nervous when he watches or even thinks about his breakthrough hit Oldboy.

“I have sometimes been scared by the reaction to this movie,” said Park during a discussion tied to a screening of the classic 2003 film at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), part of the festival’s celebration of 100 years of Korean cinema. "Like when men ask me to sign their hammers. But to be part of the program to celebrate 100 years is a great honor."

For many around the world, this piece of blood-splattered nasty-noir was a way in to Korean cinema, given the fact it won the Grand Prix at Cannes and was widely acclaimed at festivals everywhere.

It’s violent (hence the hammers), but it set the template for Korean thrillers as they started to reach out into the world, from the turn of the millennium right up to the current Oscar favorite Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s dark social commentary, like Oldboy, sets its sights on society’s sicknesses and then explodes into those moments of ultra-violence.

After 16 years, it’s safe to say that Oldboy has lost none of its edge, nor its ability to make people squirm in their seats.

Revisiting Choi Min-sik as the thuggish Oh Dae-su, and watching him endure 15 years locked in a room for reasons he cannot comprehend, still unsettles as much as it transfixes. The interiors remain blood-red or crimson and still seem to drip down the screen. Then he’s released, and there’s the notorious scene with the live octopus. Then there’s the vengeance he wreaks. And then there’s the disturbing sexual premises, both Oedipal and incestual, that beat at this film’s dark heart.

Even Park says there are moments when he reflects on the monster he made.

“Looking back, I thought a lot of my films had portrayed violent masculinity,” said Park. “That’s why I made Sympathy for Lady Vengeance [in 2005]. About 90 percent of my fans up until then were men, and this really hit me hard when I met those hammer fans. That really made me look at my film universe. I wanted to have a balance in my audience, but it was really slanted to one side. I tried to change.”

The screening at BIFF was sold out, and there were audible squeals when the director made his way on stage for his Q&A session.

He fielded questions intently and soaked up the occasional nod to his talent, including praise from one young wannabe director who said he had driven all the way from Seoul, some 200 miles away, to find out what was behind Park’s fascination with the theme of vengeance.

“Everybody expects vengeance movies to have an empty sort of ending. This makes them unique,” said Park. “Vengeance is about the anger that follows when something is lost, but even if you get vengeance you cannot replace what is lost, so the feeling is empty. It’s nihilistic, but it is very human. I want to know why people are prepared to give up everything for this meaningless thing, vengeance. No other animal does that.”

Oldboy leaves its audience hanging, not knowing what the future holds for Oh Dae-su and the woman (Kang Hye-jung) he has bonded with. Park left the audience with a hint of what that was all about. 

“I leave Oh Dae-su with a conundrum,” Park said. “He loves her, but he also has to face the truth. Does he discard all of society’s taboos for love? I don’t think there would be a happy ending to this story if that was the case. He is a romantic, but this is tragic, and that’s what this film is: a romantic tragedy.”