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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema

‘Oldboy’ (2003): A Dish Best Served Cold


Directed by: Park Chan-wook || Produced by: Im Seung-yong, Kim Dong-joo

Screenplay by: Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong, Park Chan-wook || Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jung, Ji Dae-han, Kim Byeong

Music by: Jo Yeong-wook || Cinematography: Chung-hoon Chung || Editing by: Kim Sang-beom || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean

Running Time: 120 minutes

As moviegoers, we sometimes come across pictures that are riveting for the sheer visceral emotion they depict. Though we turn the lights back on and eject the disc once the credits roll, those film-experiences stay with us long after we’ve finished our popcorn. Park Chan-wook’s 2003 thriller, Oldboy, is one of those rare, memorable, and incredibly visceral film-experiences. It’s serious in a way most political documentaries fail to be, and yet it’s playful and stylish in a manner that should make most comedies, crime dramas, and action films envious. Oldboy is a dark, violent tale, and one of the best thrillers of the new millennium. The film’s serious tone and morbid subject-matter are made evident by the introductory sets’ low-key lighting and ominous, rainy visuals. From then until the powerful climax, Oldboy takes us on a mind-bending, blood-curdling adventure that is as disturbing as they come.


Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this film is its mysterious premise. Oldboy centers around a middle-aged father who is inexplicably kidnapped and imprisoned for fifteen years. After that period of time, he is suddenly, and also without explanation, released. The reasons for his capture and the identity of his kidnapper remain a mystery, and the main goal of our dark hero from thence forth is to uncover the truth behind his nightmare scenario: Who captured him, and more importantly, why?

Both the film’s protagonist (Choi Min-sik) and antagonist (Yoo Ji-tae) are written with admirable depth and precision, and the former’s determined attempts to thwart the plans of the latter are addictive to watch. The supporting characters are less interesting, but they play their parts so the story can swim. The script also paces the action scenes and breathless detective work brilliantly. Oldboy is one of the best paced films I have ever seen. It cranks up the adrenaline till it hurts, but always dials the action back before its story becomes too exhausting.

On a technical level, Oldboy is terrific. The action is brutal and filmed in a gritty, blunt style reminiscent of David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) and Se7en (1995). Arguably the best thing about the film’s violence is the sheer cinematographic variety in which it is filmed. Some sequences treat us to shocking long-takes filled with brilliant fight choreography, while other set-pieces make use of hyperactive jump-cuts, goofy animation, and effective slow-motion camerawork.

In addition to its action, the dark mood that permeates every aspect of the film’s story is conveyed through amazing lighting and impressive set-designs. Oldboy, in many ways, feels reminiscent of the unforgettable, moody narratives of Hollywood noir features from the 1940’s and ’50’s. The seductive resonance and expert use of lighting that overlie much of the movie’s cinematic groundwork recall American noir classics like Double Indemnity (1944), as well as neo-noir features such as Chinatown (1974) and L.A. Confidential (1997). The music of Oldboy is also strong, adding a haunting soundscape to the already haunting visuals that surround our hero. The musical themes serve to both enhance the passage of time, such as in the imprisonment sequence, and also to highlight the raw emotions of its characters.

Of the movie’s few weaknesses, I would say its clumsy, almost comical ending is the most noticeable. Its climax serves as a fitting exclamation point for the twisted plot, but the film’s indecisiveness in its final moments can be distracting. The film can’t seem to decide whether it wants certain major characters to die and in what way, and this wishy-washy attitude is irritating given the massive anticipation that builds for the climax.

Speaking more broadly, the villain’s intricate, complex overarching plot to exact revenge on our protagonist tests the bounds of incredulity even within the film’s heightened reality. Considerable suspension of disbelief is required to take not just the movie’s story, but its premise seriously. It’s the narrative’s structure and themes that count over its intricate details and quasi-fantastical implications.

That being said, from both a technical standpoint and a screenwriting perspective, Oldboy is exemplary. It is a highly intelligent film that understands how to captivate its audience through dark mood, lighting, violence, and intriguing mystery. Its sheer visceral nature and unabashed attitude may prove unyielding for casual viewers, but few will be able to deny the picture’s toned prowess at delivering intense thrills and satisfying action. If there is one thing that Oldboy guarantees, it’s that its impact will stay with you long after you turn off your television set. This is a powerful motion picture-experience, and it is one of Korea’s best.


The superbly shot hallway fight-scene.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Oldboy’s twisted dynamic between its abused hero and calculating villain provides chills and thrills for days. Where the screenplay provides the right material, Park Chan-wook’s direction translates the action to the screen in the most sublime, unsettling way possible. The lighting, camerawork, and set-design illustrate the story’s dark flavor. 

However… Oldboy’s conclusion becomes almost too chaotic and bloodthirsty for its own good. Some of the irresistible noir-goodness stumbles with the overextended climax. Oldboy’s antagonist reaches supervillain levels of ingenuity and power, which is unbelievable.


? I like fried dumplings. I don’t know if I could stand fifteen years of them, though.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


16 thoughts on “‘Oldboy’ (2003): A Dish Best Served Cold

  1. I’m glad to see that so many new movie reviews have been posted since I last looked! I was also pleased to see that you enjoyed Old Boy. I recently had the pleasure of seeing it again but this time in a theatre on a big screen! That was pretty great. Though I have seen a lot of great movies over the years, I would have to say that Old Boy is my favorite, even if that gets me weird looks from people. I recommend you see “Memories of Murder” next. It was directed by the same guy that did The Host, and I think it is a spectacular film. The first time I saw it was on the big screen at a local film festival, and that made the experience even better. I recommend that you find as big a screen as you can, get some friends together, turn up the volume and turn off the lights. I hope I’m not hyping it up too much, but I really liked it. This was an informative, well written article you’ve written here. I hope to see more of these Korean films reviewed in the future!

    Posted by Scott | September 26, 2013, 7:34 pm
    • Thanks for the recommendation, Scott, I will be sure to see MoM as my next Korean flick. I also remember you mentioning that the director of MoM also directed ‘Mother,’ which I have seen and also liked a lot. Btw, have you checked out my review of ‘The Good, the Bad, the Weird?’ I thought that that was a whacky Korean adventure in its own right as well.

      Posted by The Celtic Predator | October 22, 2013, 3:43 am


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