‘Old Days’ (‘Ol-deu De-i-jeu’): Film Review

Old Days still 1 - h 2016
Courtesy of Jeonju International Film Festival
High on details, low on context.

Prior to his new film’s world premiere at Cannes, South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook and his team recall their experience making 'Oldboy,' a Grand Prize winner on the Croisette in 2003.

Originally commissioned as a supplement for an upcoming Blu-ray release of the seminal South Korean festival hit Oldboy, Han Sun-hee’s documentary proves to be much more than the usual banal mix of archive footage and talking heads. Clocking in at nearly two hours, Old Days is an expansive if not exactly sufficiently extensive account of how director Park Chan-wook and his team produced a film which would eventually propel South Korean cinema to unprecedented prominence on the film festival circuit and also among international audiences.

Just as Park readies to unspool his latest film, The Handmaiden, in competition at Cannes, Old Days — which bowed Friday at the Jeonju International Film Festival — offers a cannily timely recollection of how the filmmaker and his cast and crew blazed a trail with a crazily ambitious (and way over-budget) neo-noir that eventually won the Grand Prize on the Croisette in 2003. And it could have gone another way: In an interview here, sales agent Suh Young-joo revealed how Oldboy was initially offered a berth at the second-tier Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes, and was only bumped up to the main competition later.

Of course Park and his stars are all present here to talk about a film that amazed and intrigued in equal measures with its narrative (a man seeking revenge for being locked up in a room for 15 years), its visceral violence (the one-take fight between the protagonist and an army of thugs along a corridor) and an incest-driven twist. With Han reaching out to include a wide variety of below-the-line crew — production designers, lighting directors, line producers, assistant directors — Old Days also serves as a useful primer for aspiring filmmakers. Combining behind-the-scenes footage from 2003 and newly recorded interviews, the documentary provides a detailed account of pre-production (casting, storyboarding, designing) and the shoot itself, not to mention the push-and-pull relationships between the producers and the creatives.

With a track record in television documentaries, Han manages to jump out of the box with stylized sequences mirroring the stylized content being discussed here. For the discussion of Oldboy’s perennially mobile camerawork, Han’s team follows producer Syd Lim on a walk-around of film locations on a Steadicam; while dissecting the film’s meticulous production design, flowing computer-generated graphics pop up onscreen. And in one of the doc’s funniest moments, Park is shown fending off attention from young fans just as he recalls the challenges of controlling observing crowds at outdoor shoots.

What Old Days lacks, however, is the context of Oldboy’s origins and impact. As a documentary about a film described by production designer Ryoo Seong-hee as a “monster born out of the circumstances of the times," Old Days never touches on the cultural and social environment that might have shaped both the film’s production and popularity in South Korea. Nor does the doc explore the impact of Oldboy’s success on the South Korean film industry, or its contributions — for better or worse — in consolidating widely circulated international perceptions of South Korean cinema as a hub for onscreen extremities. While offering a thrilling ride through the past, Old Days could have been better if those good times had been conveyed as a harbinger of a radically altered present and future.  

Venue: Jeonju International Film Festival
Production company: Plain Archive
Director: Han Sun-hee
Producer: Juno Baek, Han Sun-hee
Director of photography: Cho Young-jik, Kim Hyoung-jiu
Editor: Kim hyoung-jiu
Music: Kim Jun-seok

In Korean

Not rated, 110 minutes