The following contains spoilers for Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film, Oldboy. Proceed with caution.
Oh Dae-su has a story to tell. Dangling a man by his tie over the side of a building, a strange man with a stranger haircut sees this as the best time of any to start opening up. He wants his newfound companion to know who he is. He wants him to know his name. It is only the film’s first few minutes and director Park Chan-wook has already provided audiences with one of the most tantalizing character introductions in modern cinema. But for Mr. Park, the introduction is a long time coming.
New Korean Cinema, like the films of La movida madrileña in Spain and many waves before that, was born out of a time of great cultural change. South Korea, recently democratic for the first time in 16 years, had to reconfigure itself. Like Oldboy’s protagonist, Oh Dae-su, it was thrust back into the world to which it had long been removed. It is this shared plight that makes Oldboy the defining film of New Korean Cinema. In Oh Dae-su, Park made a character of a country, and in doing so captured the newfound freedom and anxiety of South Korea more effectively — and explicitly — than anything else before it.
One of the most famous scenes from Oldboy arrives in the first act, when Oh Dae-su, newly released from an enigmatic prison where he’d been held for 15 years, goes to a sushi restaurant. There he meets Mi-do, a female sushi chef he once saw on TV, and the closest thing Oldboy has to a femme fatale. Oh Dae-su tells Mi-do that he wants to eat “something alive”. She serves him a plate of octopus, but before she can slice it up, Oh Dae-su has grabbed the creature by the head, proceeding to eat the whole thing in as close to a single bite as physically possible. While the scene garnered its reputation for the sensationalism of seeing a man eat a live octopus, what makes it so thematically resonant is how literally it presents South Korea’s journey.
“Long time, no see,” Mi-do tells Oh Dae-su, in one of the first exchanges between the pair — to which Oh Dae-su replies, “This is my first time here”. Park shoots both of them in medium close-up, with Oh Dae-su straight on and Mi-do slightly canted. Mi-do is forcing Oh Dae-su to question his place in the world, and her framing reflects that shift in understanding. Has Oh Dae-su been here before? Does he not remember it, or did it never happen at all? This exchange plants the seed for the longer arc between Mi-do and Oh Dae-su, and will later act as a clue to the film’s ultimate “twist”. However, the exchange also reflects the slippery place that Oh Dae-su occupies in the world: He has been there before and he hasn’t. Maybe Oh Dae-su is correct that he has never been to this specific restaurant before, but he has been in this world before — as a different person. Now, everywhere he goes, it is for both the first time and the millionth time. Like South Korea, he is navigating a world that he once knew, but as a different person. The outside world recognizes him, but he does not recognize the world.
As Mi-do and Oh Dae-su talk, the camera slowly pulls out, revealing more of the restaurant. Park is often a fan of a moving camera, preferring to arrive at his shots by traveling over a scene rather than cutting away. In Oldboy, his roaming camera gives a sense of constant evolution and unsteadiness. Oh Dae-su the man, and his place in the world, is constantly changing. There’s a sense that it could go in any directing, and at any moment. Here, the movement signals a moment of peace. Oh Dae-su, previously shot in close-up, is finally given some breathing room. It is optimistic, and ultimately false, as Oh Dae-su’s phone — given to him by a stranger a few moments prior — finally rings. As Oh Dae-su talks, the camera pushes back in, retaking any space it had given. The world, and the sense of threat, is closing back in on him. This phone call introduces us to Oldboy’s villain, Lee Woo-jin, the looming, unseen face of Oh Dae-su’s suffering.
North Korea, separated by a wall, has always loomed over South Korea as a threat, almost never seen but always felt. Its proximity to its brother country is one of the main causes of South Korea’s problems, and when it entered its Sixth Republic in 1987, it had hoped to finally put that problem behind it. In 1990, North Korea accepted a proposal for exchange between the two countries, and in 1991, the two Koreas entered the United Nations together. But at the time of Oldboy’s release in 2003, the newfound peace between the two was on shaky ground.
Park, in the press coverage for Oldboy, has been very explicit about the meaning behind the infamous octopus scene: Oh Dae-su, secluded from other living beings for so long, wants to eat something alive in order to feel life again. But what intrigues — and falls more squarely within the cultural narrative — is how Oh Dae-su eats the octopus. In other words, violently, entirely, and without any semblance of manners. And then, with the touch of Mi-do’s cold hand, he is out, a stray tentacle still wiggling on the plate. The camera pulls back out; the space has been regained. Finally, with his first moment of human contact, Oh Dae-su can breathe again.
If Oh Dae-su is to represent South Korea, then the question we’re left with is what does Oldboy say, if anything, about the country’s future? As a film, Oldboy is violent, brutal, often bordering on nihilistic. It is unlikely that anyone could classify it as an easy watch. But after everything Oh Dae-su has been through, he is offered a small bit of hope: an ability to restart. The hypnotist takes away his memories of what has happened, and he is free, finally. Maybe that is what Park Chan-wook hopes for his country. A new country, unburdened by past pain, forging its way through a wide, open world. In the works of Mr. Park, it might be his most hopeful yet.