An Analysis of Oldboy (2003)


Oldboy (2003) is arguably the most remarkable neo-noir action thriller film ever produced. Directed by Park Chan-wook, the film is an adaptation of Garon Tsuchiya’s Japanese manga by the same title hailed for breathing cinematic life to this popular comic-strip. According to Yoo (2012), this widely acclaimed film managed to enthrall its audience and film critics alike by upping the stakes in production (p.56). This comes as no surprise. Chan-wook, was a student of philosophy at Sogang University where he graduated summa cum laude in his field.  It was here that he first became obsessed with breaking the glass ceiling in the film industry and introducing noticeable changes in various methods of artistic presentation. He asserted, on several occasions, that he was disappointed by a lack of authenticity in film production and thus endeavored to be a trendsetter in the arena.  Chan-wook began by reducing the analytical orientation which he was taught to rely on in production, and opted for aesthetics as the best approach when seeking to relay a specific perspective. The Sogang Film Community soon became his first step to realizing this dream. He would assemble like-minded individuals in this nascent forum to discuss changes that would eventually influence the quality of South Korean films. Chan-wook’s resolve was further bolstered when he first viewed Vertigo, which motivated him to write pilot scripts that would eventually lead to production. One of the ideas born out of his discourses at Sogang Film Community was to incorporate his art in existing Japanese manga comic-strips (Bould, Glitre, & Tuck, 2009). They were popular in South Korea and ever present in the nation’s collective consciousness. Oldboy (2003) is a reflection of this novel approach and even won the Grand Prix during the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.  It is worth acknowledging that the film had far reaching repercussions for the film world.  Oldboy (2003), fundamentally, made an impression on the general public’s image of gangsters and impacted the production of future crime films.


            Manga is popular for its propensity for crime fiction. The aftermath of the Second World War (1939-45) together with the horrors witnessed by the Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki desensitized the islands population leading to the creation of a new society under occupation. Violence and criminal activities soon became the norm. Syndicate-type organizations such as Inagawa-kai, Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-kai were part of Japanese life with tentacles reaching every prefecture (Brown, 2018, p. 89). Their ruthless tactics often led to a wave of crime and wanton destruction. By the early 1990s, murder was a common phenomenon which was quickly spiraling out of control. It was this reality that led many manga writers to focus on the graphic depiction of criminal activity and the violence that often followed. Their activities remained largely unabated since most of the production companies did not use a moralistic editorial tone when describing them but simply as a portrayal reality. It was against this backdrop that Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi wrote the original Old Boy series that later on appeared in the 1997 edition of the Weekly Manga Action.

In 2003, Chan-wook produced his adaptation of the manga series in an attempt to avoid a nuanced version of the truth no matter its coarse nature.  Oldboy (2003) is the second film produced by Chan-wook from The Vengeance Trilogy attempting to capture a genuine representation of crime and violence (Buckland, 2012). The protagonist, Oh Dae-Su, finds himself in a fix when he is captured by individuals unknown to him and imprisoned in a hotel. He remains unaware of the circumstances that led to his current predicament but he remains confined for 15 years.  Upon his release in 2003, he realizes that his life now revolves intrigue and never ending conspiracies. Oh Dae-Su first meets a man on a rooftop ledge ready to commit suicide and bearing an ominous message for him. He immediately suspects the message was meant for him and is now, more than ever, determined to unravel the mystery of his captor’s identity. Oh Dae-Su meets Mi-do, a sous chef who nurses him back to health when he collapses in her presence and are involved romantically soon thereafter. Taunting calls from his captor become the norm. Lee Woo-Jin emerges as his tormentor who was seeking revenge for being exposed as having an incestuous relationship with his sister back in high school. It becomes apparent that Woo-Jin used hypnosis to guide the protagonist after gaining his freedom. Oh Dae-Su had unknowingly engaged in an incestuous relationship with Mi-do who happened to be his daughter. This revelation irks him, making him more belligerent while still being ready terrorize Lee Woo-Jin and his minions. After his reign of terror, the film finally ends with Oh Dae-Su seeking the hypnotist from the prison to help in erasing the memories of his incest with Mi-Do.

Chan-wook Depiction of the Criminal World and Elements that Impacted the Publics Image of Gangsters and its Implication for Future Film Production

The Introduction of Revenge as Having a Major Influence on Criminal Behavior

The popular axiom, from time immemorial, is that gangsters and other suchlike individuals involved in the criminal world perpetrate their violent acts out of sheer malice. However, film critics do not fully agree with these sentiments. Park Chan-wook film also doubles up as an attempt to dispel the aforementioned myth by inducing a sentimental element to his story and painting a comprehensive picture of a criminal’s motivation. He introduces his character using a strategy that was designed to present an accurate representation of the genesis of his ulterior motives. Chan-wook was well aware of the implications of this twist in the plot and one the main factors that influenced his decision when choosing Tsuchiya and Minegishi’s original Old Boy series for adaptation.

From the onset, the film seems to introduce revenge as a major inducement to committing criminal acts. Chan-wook capitalizes on this fact first by making revenge a sub-theme in the film. He then proceeds to explain the reason behind this desire for vengeance as a window into the inner workings of a criminal mind. Oh Dae-Su and Woo-Jin are both motivated by revenge when committing acts that would be considered criminal in any civilized social order (Haenni, Barrow, & White, 2014, p. 34).  A flashback of their high-school days introduces the audience to a sexual exchange between Woo-Jin and his sister but also witnessed by Oh Dae-Su. The two soon catch a glimpse of the uninvited voyeur and gasp out of shock. Oh Dae-Su intimates what he saw to his friend Ju-hwan and urges him not to tell anyone else.  However, Ju-hwan fails to do so and a rumor about the incestuous relationship soon spreads throughout the school. Woo-Jin’s sister is profoundly affected by this humiliating rumor and develops pseudocyesis which eventually leads to suicide (Kim, 2011, p.22). Woo-Jin was convinced that Oh Dae-Su intended to harm him and plotted his revenge if presented with the opportunity. Imprisoning Oh Dae-Su, hypnotizing him and leading to the restaurant where he unknowingly meets his daughter. After taunting Oh Dae-Su with a number of phone calls, he soon reveals his identity.  An enraged Oh Dae-Su now seeks his captor with a renewed determination for revenge, but soon stops on his heels when he realized that his actions led to the death of Woojin’s sister.  Dae-Su is also provided with a box revealing the relationship that he shares with Mi-Do and threatening to reveal this information to her. In both cases, Chan-wook capitalizes on the actions that influenced their lust for revenge, which involuntarily influenced the public’s long-held views about criminal behavior.

The Onset of Extreme Shock Value through Violence

Unlike the typical use of violence in neo-noir thriller films to create a momentary distraction, Oldboy (2003) makes it the primary focus throughout the entire production. Extreme violence (physical, psychological, sexual and self-harm) is introduced by the director to the audience as a bleak reality that is rarely explored fully in action thriller films. In essence, Chan-wook endeavored to shed a light on the true nature of violence in the criminal world in a precise fashion. Physical violence entails using a broad range of cruelties to serve as punishment. Psychological violence is equally damaging and involves the use of coercive tactics to gain control over another individual. Physical and psychological violence always go hand in hand since the former may lead to the latter. Dae-Su storms in Mi-do’s bathroom and uses physical force while attempting assault her sexually. Dae-Su’s use of physical violence can be traced back to his period of incarceration where he experienced a level of psychological damage (Jeon, 2012). Soon after, he was directing towards himself and an indication of insanity. Dae-Su’s desperation in captivity drove him to self-harm, cutting his hands when punching a mirror and tattooing his body.  Violence is depicted in a unique way in the film with its director having an entirely different motive in mind. Dee-Su is tortured in captivity and cannot exactly tell why this is the case. It soon becomes apparent that the events leading to the death of Woo-Jin’s were partly to blame for violence.  Dae-Su also goes on a violent rampage which the director shows in raw fashion. He captures one of Woo-Jin’s henchmen, interrogates him and proceeds to extract 15 teeth. In addition to this, the skillful use of a hammer as the protagonist’s tool of choice was also selected to shock the audience.  The sight of Dae-Su using a hammer and being stabbed in the back during the corridor scene reveals that the Chan-wook was determined to produce an unadulterated presentation of violence in the criminal underworld. The public all too often relies on news reels when seeking to understand the full extent of violence in society. Chan-wook’s is fully aware of the unreliability of these edited accounts and, therefore, focuses on his version of a truth which is rarely presented. Abductions, detention and torture are a common phenomenon in the criminal world. Rivalries between competing factions may escalate to matters of grave concern for those involved. Competitions and turf wars may lead to malevolent atrocities perpetuated with the sole goal of remaining in power. Typically, it is only those who are in the line of fire or the immediate vicinity that gets to witness it fast hand. Nevertheless, Chan-wook realizes that film production accords him with an exceptional opportunity to depict a trustworthy representation of the nature of violence.

Cultural Differences as a Major Influence on a Criminal’s Life Choices

Oldboy (2003) is set in South Korea at period following the end of the brutal Korean War (1950-53). The development of film production soon after presented a unique opportunity for film directors such as Park Chan-wook to present his perspective of Korean life and its influence an individual’s life choices.  The protagonist is a product of his environment and only projects what he knows best and how he was socialized. Life in the Korean for many of its native inhabitants has been one of varying levels of turmoil over the past 150 years. The Japanese occupation of this region after the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876 made it a sphere of influence that now had to pledge allegiance to the occupiers (McCracken, 2012, p. 35). The myth of racial and cultural superiority that the Empire of Japan subscribed to also meant that the Koreans were regarded as subordinates. Japan undertook one of its most intense cultural experiments in the Korean Peninsula. The Korean populace was deliberately led to believe that they were sub-human and that the Japanese were superior.  This marked the start of an elaborate scheme hatched by Japanese Generals to discredit centuries of Korean traditions, therefore leading to the adoption of a warped view of their culture.

The criminal and violent aspects of Korean culture were as a direct response of Japanese influence on the region.  A swift campaign of “reeducation” left the average Korean without a social safety net which would always protect them from any foreign influence. Without firm social codes to govern behavior, many resorted to violence and crime to solve any squabbles that they may have with each other.  The Korean War (1950-53) further worsened this situation. Korea was quickly becoming a major theatre of proxy war during the Cold War. Although the world focused on a clash between two militaristic elements, the human cost of this conflict was largely ignored. Korean peasants bore the full brunt of these violent clashes, especially since they were in the middle of the action. The end of the war heralded a new era, even though many were not fully aware of its consequences. However, Chan-wook started his career as a film critic eager to explore the philosophical culture of the Korean people and events that greatly impacted their psyche. The cultural difference that these individuals possessed after the end of this protracted conflicts meant that a significant portion of the populace had poor conflict resolution mechanism. Though reprehensible, it is worth noting that the feelings between Woo-Jin and his sister were mutual.  They were both romantically attracted to each other and tried their level best to ensure that their secret remained a secret. Nonetheless, Oh Dae-Su peeps through a foggy classroom window and witnesses their incestuous relationship first-hand. After his sister’s suicide, Woo-Jin is preoccupied with the idea of revenge since he holds Oh Dae-Su responsible for her death. Instead of confronting him about the matter at hand, Woo-Jin decides that the best course of action would be to imprison him for 15 years while plotting his revenge. Similarly, Oh Dae-Su see’s red after his imprisonment and believes that the only thing that would bring him joy was revealing the identity of his captor and punishing. The breakdown in appropriate conflict resolution mechanism is evident throughout the entire film (Taylor-Jones, 2013). Violence is preferred as a means to end when solving conflicts in the Korean fashion since it was made culturally appropriate after years of subjugation. The audience thus gets to acknowledge the power of this cultural influence and its impact on the criminal choices made by Woo-Jin and Oh Dae-Su.

A Combination of the Art-House Filming and Cult Phenomenon in Film

The film’s unique visual style also shaped the general public’s image of gangsters and future productions.  Park Chan-wook focuses on his audiovisuals to tell the story of a purported violent criminal through elaborate art-house, conventional and cult sequences. This particular combination bolsters the gangster image, a technical tactic that was later adopted by leading film makers including Spike Lee (Wing-Fai & Willis, 2014, p. 23). Chan-wook focuses on these aspects of cinematography since he is aware of the fact that many film directors avoid it and focus on other aspects of production which are least important. For instance, the corridor scene was expertly orchestrated to capture the true essence of combat. Chan-wook adds his production flare by adjusting the color saturations during this scene to introduce an intentional grain. The purpose of this technique was to ensure that the audience had an unobstructed glimpse of the violence that is all too often perpetuated in the criminal underworld. Chan-wook used a hand-held camera during these intense scenes as a way of ensuring that the shaky effect supported the depiction of violent scenes. In addition to this it also gives the audience a direct view to the happenings which makes sure that they are directly involved in the conflict.  Chan-wook also avoids single cutaway shots and settles on long scenes which would capture the true nature of noir action. It is remarkable how Oh Dae-Su uses his hammer to attack the guard during the hallway scene, even with a knife wedged deep in his back. Since the film is generally darkly-lit, an intimidating atmosphere pervades the entire film. The long takes were also designed to create an air of tension in the film which would ultimately contribute in the final production. Chan-wook also introduces the cult hypnosis in the film which is largely viewed as part of the global cult phenomenon. He does this as a way of reminding his audience that desperate times in the criminal world may lead some of these individuals to resorting to unconventional tactics to achieve their objectives. It serves as a reminder that the stakes can be quite high in the life of a sell-professed gangster, even leading them to use cult phenomenon to gain an edge over their competitors.


Oldboy (2003) is widely acclaimed the world over for its unequivocal depiction of the manga comic-strip going by the same title. The film’s director, Park Chan-wook is remembered as a revolutionary in the field through his eccentric cinematographic techniques. His production leaves an impression on the audience through the introduction of revenge as a motivator of criminal behavior and extreme shock value through violence. Also, cultural differences emerged as a predisposing factor in the life choices made by an offender, all which were expressed suing a combination of art-house film techniques and the introduction of the cult phenomenon. Chan-wook, therefore, successfully caused ripples in the film world and made a lasting impression on the general public’s image of gangsters the consequent production of crime films.

Get Your Custom Paper From Professional Writers. 100% Plagiarism Free, No AI Generated Content and Good Grade Guarantee. We Have Experts In All Subjects.

Place Your Order Now
Scroll to Top