Oldboy Turns 20: Revisiting the Hallway Fight, the Meaning of Vengeance, and That Spike Lee Remake
Director Park Chan-wook reflects on his iconic revenge thriller ahead of its 20th-anniversary release.
The hammer from Oldboy is about as iconic as any piece of cinematic weaponry, ranking right up there with Thor’s Mjollnir, Jason’s machete, or a Ghostbusters proton pack. But if you think back to the South Korean thriller’s most memorable scene, that hammer isn’t quite as badass as you might remember.
Surrounded by henchmen in a dingy hallway and clutching the deadly tool, Choi Min-sik fights his way through waves of enemies who crumple like paper cutouts at the lightest swing. It’s not exactly the action-packed climax you might expect, but for director Park Chan-wook, that’s always been the point.
“Those enemies are not important people,” Park tells Inverse ahead of Oldboy’s upcoming theatrical re-release. “You can almost say they're abstract beings. So being surrounded by these people and fighting with them for what feels like an eternity, I felt like this was literally a metaphor for one man's life.”
Released 20 years ago in November 2003, Oldboy tells the story of a man who is locked in a hotel room for 15 years and never told why. After finally making his escape, he attempts to get answers — and revenge — but soon learns that he’s still caught in someone else’s own Machiavellian plot for vengeance.
For Park, who accidentally talked himself into making a Vengeance Trilogy back when Oldboy was first announced (more on that later), revenge is a common theme across all entertainment not just because it’s a universal emotion but because it reveals something about human nature.
“We know revenge is a futile action that only leads to emptiness,” he says. “Yet people who act upon revenge invest everything they have into it. And I think understanding the workings behind this psyche can help us understand mankind.”
Below, Inverse talks to Park about revenge, the trippy experience of watching Spike Lee’s adaptation of his own film, and the South Korean director’s interest in making a sci-fi or superhero movie.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Congrats on the 20th anniversary of Oldboy. To start, I should probably ask, what changes, if any, were made for this remaster?
There are no specific changes. Because the film was originally shot and screened in film. I just wanted to have the opportunity to preserve it digitally, but there were no changes made.
The hallway fight scene in Oldboy is so iconic, but when I rewatched the movie, I realized it’s actually a really funny scene. It’s more comedic than action-packed. What message were you trying to convey with that scene?
The point I wanted to express was that those enemies are not important people. This is not a scene in which the protagonist is dueling with the main villain. These are men hired by a man who was hired by the main villain. These people are never going to make an appearance again and all of them are unnamed characters. You can almost say they're abstract beings. So being surrounded by these people and fighting with them for what feels like an eternity, I felt like this was literally a metaphor for one man's life.
So if we call one man's life a battle, this battle-istic attitude, uh, there's things in life that fight with us, like an illness or anything in life that threatens us, or for instance, an internal conflict. Well, I almost saw the scene as a materialization of those things that fight with us and torture us in life. And the fatigue and loneliness that comes from this lifelong battle, with these things that torture us. I saw it as a metaphor in that way.
If we look at life from a distance, like in the hallway scene, there is tragedy, but there's also comedy. It's this intense battle, but there are also these ironic and comedic moments hidden in our lives.
So I know that Oldboy is part of what's called the “Vengeance Trilogy” of movies you made. Why are you so interested in revenge as a topic for movies?
When I started off, I wasn't necessarily intending to create a Vengeance Trilogy. I only wanted to make the film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. But after that film, my producer brought me the original manga for Oldboy and I ended up adapting that into a film.
When it was revealed that I was making Oldboy, these journalists came up to me and they were asking me, “Why are you making one revenge film after another? Why are you obsessed with this theme of revenge?” I was only half serious and half joking, but I said, “Every story, from various civilizations across the world to our modern culture, has this element of revenge. From melodrama to musicals, all of these different stories have that element of revenge. That's how much audiences like stories of revenge.” So I told the journalist, “What's so strange about me making two revenge films? I'm actually just going to go ahead and make a trilogy of revenge films.” And I had to make Lady Vengeance because I said those words and I had to take responsibility for that.
“Revenge is fundamentally related to mankind’s nature.”
So even though this trilogy was made accidentally, I did mean what I said about revenge. Surprisingly, many stories have these elements of revenge, and that's because people like to read these stories. Revenge is fundamentally related to mankind's nature and a kind of core desire that all of us have. We know revenge is a futile action that only leads to emptiness. Yet people who act upon revenge invest everything they have into it. And I think understanding the workings behind this psyche can help us understand mankind.
It’s also been 10 years since Spike Lee’s adaptation of Oldboy was released. What are your feelings about that movie?
I was first of all very honored that it was made by a director I respect and have been personally influenced by. Watching the film, it felt very eerie because it's the story that I've created, but it's different. It's almost like a familiar face, but also very new at the same time.
You know when you go to amusement parks and there's the hall of mirrors and you see your contorted reflections in these strange mirrors? It was a fun experience similar to something like that.
You also produced Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. Are you interested in making your own big-budget action sci-fi movie? Or even a superhero movie?
I haven't been offered any superhero genre projects, but I'm open to any projects with a good script and good characters.
As for these larger budget, larger world sci-fi action pieces, I've actually already written a script. It's not finished yet and it's too early to say that that's going to be my next project. But there is a script that I have which is called Genocidal Organ.