How to Watch Oldboy (2003)

[Note: spoilers for Park Chan-wook’s OLDBOY (2003) follow]

Late August. In a dark blackbox theater in Hudson, NY, filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s face beams towards an eager audience, his smile stretching across a blinding screen that faces a sold out crowd. 20 years after the release of his cult revenge film OLDBOY (2003), distributor NEON is releasing a 4K remastered version, and the Hudson Film Festival in Upstate New York is the only American festival to be granted permission to screen an advanced copy of it. Chan-wook has recorded a special message to viewers ahead of the film, reflecting on its legacy and warning unsuspecting moviegoers with a fondness for octopi to stay alert.

I had never seen OLDBOY, nor the other two films of “The Vengeance Trilogy” it is a part of, a collection of Chan-wook-directed Korean revenge fantasies of which OLDBOY is the middle installment. I was playfully warned by my partner ahead of the screening that there was a “before OLDBOY” and an “after OLDBOY” in terms of mental states. Audience members giggled with delight at Chan-wook’s references to the film’s extreme violence. I wasn’t overly worried. I had survived the curb-stomping scene in TITANE, I could take whatever this film had in store.

At the risk of being reductive, I’m going to quickly wrap up the central conflict of OLDBOY, spoilers ahoy:

As a young boy, Joo-hwan engages in a sensual act with his sister. Oh Dae-Su, a fellow classmate, sees this happen and accidentally contributes to spreading a rumor about the interaction. Joo-hwan’s sister dies by suicide because of bullying due to the rumor. 15 years after her death, Joo-hwan takes revenge against Dae-Su by forcibly imprisoning him, hypnotizing him, and tricking him into having sex with Mi-do, a young woman that is later revealed to be Dae-Su’s own daughter that he lost contact with upon his imprisonment 15 years earlier.

There is plenty more to this plot but that’s the gist of the central “revenge” of the story. As Mi-do is under hypnosis during sexual intercourse with Dae-Su, we are witnessing her sexual assault, though he is also unaware of her true identity at this point – both are being manipulated and abused. It is the men in this film, though, that are given the space to be emotionally affected by the violence enacted on women in this world, even as they use it as fuel for their own desires for vengeance. They are allowed to be both the perpetrators and victims.

And that sucks for a lot of reasons, one of them being that this is a great fucking movie until the incest reveal. That is a ridiculous line to type but it’s true: OLDBOY’s first half establishes a character primed for earned catharsis, Choi Min-sik in the lead role as Dae-Su was a vision, the use of violence to crawl through the other side of pain was a blast to watch. I laughed when I should have and when I shouldn’t have and oh my god the hallway scene! But it all comes crashing down with a dog in one hand and a really fucking bummer twist in the other.

OLDBOY presents a facade of concern for women and their bodies: sacred yet disposable vessels for which men’s sins are the canvas. OLDBOY infantilizes womenkind for the sake of man’s ego, men’s traumas being what matters above all else. Mi-do is sexually assaulted without her knowledge, but it’s Dae-Su’s reaction to this that matters more to the film.

After watching, I immediately needed to know what other women thought of this film. As quickly as I ducked out of the theater onto the humid street outside, I opened my phone’s web browser with dancing fingers. Unlike a new release, OLDBOY had 20 years to stew in the minds of audiences, and I was buzzing to read insights that I knew would help me make sense of what had just crossed my eyes.

A dive into the bowels of the World Wide Web, however, reveal almost no critiques of the film from women at all, let alone feminist reflections on its themes. The top results on Google for queries like “reviews of oldboy 2003 by women” or “oldboy 2003 feminist” are men writers praising the masterpiece. Its modern re-release has cluttered search results with swooning reviews in celebration of its anniversary, but even a scour of sites that publish scholarly critique or archived blogs offer dismal results.

There’s plenty of complimentary reflections available online, though. Vengeance, they all say, is served in complicated, glorious fashion, but there’s never any descriptive insight into that complication. What of the use of women’s bodies for violence in the name of paternalism? The cultural implications of fatherhood, particularly in Korea, or the honor that befalls a father culturally to protect his daughter? What of incest survivors, or women that have experienced intimate partner violence, what do they think of this work?

What women have to do with it all is beside the point.


Anne Elizabeth Moore’s incredible collection of essays BODY HORROR (2023) paints a picture of the horror film genre shaped by one point of view’s anxieties and fears:

“Horror film is a man’s world, even if we look beyond the production teams that undergird the genre. The most visible fan base, comprised of internet commenters, film critics and bloggers, is dude replete almost without exception. There are simply more men granted agency to shape the world of horror.

We’re often told that women don’t like horror films because they can’t stomach the gross-outs, but it seems more likely to me that they simply crave new experiences. Horror films rely far too frequently on an all-male revue of mad scientists, psycho killers, and evil demons who offer little new to women, many of whom, after all, regularly experience blood gushing out of their vaginas or, less frequently, tiny beings inside their bodies making absurd demands, or rapid body changes due to hormone therapy. Women and trans and nonbinary people are often habituated to unwanted sexual advances in the workplace or on the street and subjected to invasive inquiries regarding their sex parts – often under threat of violence. Very few horror films come close to portraying the banal terrors faced by people who are not cis men.

Movies are said to offer some escape from reality…yet for women viewers of horror, one wonders what sort of escape is even possible. Sexual violence occurs on-screen in horror films at approximately the same rate as it happens to women in the world every day.”

The two men at the center of OLDBOY hang their sense of self to the women in their lives, women they see not as autonomous beings but as extensions of themselves: women they loved, honor they lost. Theirs. In OLDBOY, the worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a woman is that a man will kidnap your dad and then force you to commit an act of incest. The worst thing that can happen to you if you’re a man is for another man to make fun of your sister.

If OLDBOY was created within the revenge genre’s exploitation of catharsis, who exactly gets to experience it in the first place?

Moore reflects in BODY HORROR further:

“…Cursory data analysis suggests that an entire genre of film has cohered around men’s fears that somehow manages to ignore everyone else’s fears entirely.

If we take sexual violence as just one example…we can reasonably assume that some of the men, if not most of the men who write, direct, and produce horror films, believe sexual violence to contribute to the appeal of the genre. Men aren’t experiencing sexual violence as frequently as women characters in these films, nor do men experience rape as frequently as women and nonbinary people do in real life. So the fact that men behind the scenes of horror appear to believe that rape heightens tension is not rooted in their own experience of it.

What is clear is that men who make horror films value the impact of scenes of rape and sexual violence can have on their bottom line. Sexual violence, in horror films, is good for business.”

Redemption, vengeance, transcendence, all of it is possible without violating a woman’s body, contrary to what a lot of films will tell you. Perhaps that’s what’s most terrifying to cis men, though. Moore continues in BODY HORROR: “In AMERICAN MARY (2012, Jen and Sylvia Soska) and RAW (2016, Julia Ducournau), part of what is horrific within the worlds created by the films is that a female character retains autonomy over her own body throughout, eventually taking control over the bodies of others.”

When will catharsis in the face of trauma be truly possible for all bodies seeking release from pain? Why is one type of audience allowed the space to decide what stories should be told? Would it not have been kind of great to have Mi-do kill Joo-hwan instead of allowing him the chance to kill himself?

Even though I’m no more than a woman, don’t I, too, have the right to enjoy a revenge fantasy?


Cited:

BODY HORROR: CAPITALISM, FEAR, MISOGYNY, JOKES | ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE

Two decades later, a Korean action landmark still hits like a hammer | LA Times

OLDBOY Re-release | NEON