FROM MANGA TO MODERN CLASSIC
The making of Oldboy
In late November 2003, a revenge thriller melding extreme violence with the theme of father-daughter incest opened in theatres in its native South Korea.
“I worried about sales,” admits director Park Chan-wook, “they said it’d be banned from theatres because of the incest and it’d receive tremendous criticism.” Producer Syd Lim adds: “On the day of the press screening, it was the only screening, but there was no applause. No-one even talked, and everyone just left quietly.”
Despite this, Oldboy opened on 170 screens and sold 3.26 million tickets in two months. Six months later it won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, a first for a Korean film.
After its Cannes screening, the audience rose and offered an extended standing ovation. “It wasn’t the customary applause,” says Suh Youngjoo, CEO of film company Finecut. “You could tell they really loved it. I remember it was a very long-standing ovation. [Oldboy] brought the level of Korean cinema up a notch.”
After Cannes, Oldboy was sold to territories worldwide, grossing $15m in the international box office (three times what the US remake would manage to garner). “It was the first example of a Korean film being globally recognised as one of the very best,” adds Suh.
Oldboy was the second instalment in Park’s Vengeance Trilogy which features Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), and cemented Park’s position as one of Korea’s most important film makers.
In the 17 years that have passed, Oldboy has done more than maintain its individual appeal and reputation as propeller for modern Korean cinema’s more global appeal. In 2019 it enjoyed a 4K rerelease in cinemas, allowing critics and reviewers a fresh view of its relevance.
“A beautifully blood-spattered modern classic” states Peter Bradshaw in his five-star review in The Guardian. Donald Clarke, in his similarly five-star review for The Irish Times, says “Oldboy emerges in a new print as an established classic just two months after Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite finally became the first Korean film to win the Palme d’Or. The groundwork was laid here.”
Quentin Tarantino counts Park as one of his favourite filmmakers and Spike Lee so loved Oldboy, he remade it in the US in 2013. In 2017, the New York Times Style magazine would purr in a headline ‘Park Chan-wook, the Man Who Put Korean Cinema on the Map’.
Despite Oldboy’s tract as one of the best films of the 2000s and the quintessential keystone of extreme modern Asian cinema, it was difficult for many of those involved to imagine such a scenario as a modest budget played to an escalating schedule held together by a largely young cast and crew. The journey from inception to that standing ovation in Cannes hinged on a sense of comradery and a reverence for director Park and central star Choi.
Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su, who is imprisoned in a private prison designed as a hotel room for 15 years. When he is released, Dae-su embarks on a quest for revenge to find his captors and learn why he was captured and then released. Amongst this he falls in love with Mi-do, a young sushi chef, a romance that will provide the catalyst for the film’s central twist.
The film is based on the Japanese manga series of the same name written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi. “I was about 31 years old and I was bored so I went to a comics store,” says Lim. “Our screenwriter Hwang once told me that Oldboy, the graphic novel, was really good. There was this one frame in the manga. A closeup of a guy’s face, and it looked like Choi Min-sik. I saw that and thought he’d be great for the role.”
A theatre actor, Choi had a screen career which started in the late 80s. His reputation leaped after playing a North Korean agent in Shiti (1999), with Choi landing the best actor award at the Grand Bell Awards. When he was cast in Oldboy, Choi had a 12 film cannon behind him. “When Choi agreed, I couldn’t believe it,” says line producer Han Jae-duk. “We’d get to work with Choi Min-sik.”
“Once Choi was cast in the leading role,” says Park, “it was clear how Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Oldboy would differ... the difference between [lead in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance] Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik. Choi had played some very diverse roles, but I really wanted to portray him as a classic hero.”
Lim says script meetings then commenced twice a week for almost three months in a local café. As Park and Lim debated the direction of the script, Park had a revelation that moulded the direction of the film. “It occurred to me that the key to surpassing the original story was not why he was imprisoned, but why he was let go,” says Park.
From there, the incest storyline was developed, with the twist that on his release Dae-su would be further railed into falling in love with Mi-do, his daughter that he had learned had been adopted by a Swedish couple. For Park, this concept was a deal-breaker, “He [Park] said he must do it that way or he wouldn’t do it at all,” comments Lim. “From the very start, Park, Lim and I wanted to wholly reconstruct the manga,” says Choi. “I remember the director saying, ‘He [Dae-su] didn’t know what he’d done’.”
‘I thought she was weird’
With Park and Choi now included in the production helm, casting began. The two most important characters after Dae-su were his love interest and daughter Mi-do and the man behind Dae-su’s imprisonment, Lee Woo-jin.
During auditions for Mi-do, a young actress arrived with her own knife. “I thought she [Kang Hye-jung] was a bit weird at the audition,” says Choi. “She’d brought a real sashimi knife from a Japanese restaurant”. Kang explained: “I decided to give everything I had for the Oldboy audition, so I dived into it with no shame”. Choi refused to believe that Kang had managed to borrow the knife from a chef and sent one of the assistant directors out to confirm the story.
“I didn’t know that chefs don’t ordinarily lend their knives,” says Kang, “I thought, ‘he has plenty of them. So what’s the big deal?’”. After her unique audition, Kang turned to leave and managed to trip, dropping to the audition floor. “The director said he saw me trip over my heels while leaving, and that’s why he cast me,” says Kang.
If the Kang casting was a potential risk, they also opted for a unique pick for Woo-jin. In the script Dae-su and Woo-jin are depicted as attending school at the same time, linked to Woo-jin’s ultimate motivation for gaining revenge on Dae-su, who had witnessed Woo-jin commit incest with his own sister, spread the news across the school and triggered Woo-jin's sister’s suicide.
For the role, Yoo Ji-tae is cast despite being 14 years younger than Choi in a role written as a school contemporary. Park’s preference had been for Han Suk-kyu, who previously played a rival to Choi Min-sik in No. 3 (1997) and Shiri (1999), but it was Choi himself who suggested Yoo. “The unconventional casting of Yoo paradoxically made the movie more violent,” says Han, who explains that the left-field decision drove the “anything goes” attitude of the overall film.
‘As a producer, I failed’
From inception through to the final days of filming, the film’s modest budget attempted to stretch across Park’s vision. The director’s measured filmmaking approach meant scenes were shot ad nauseam until he would green light them.
Assistant director Lee Gae-byok says Park would “shoot one or two shots at most per days, a good day would be three or four”. This resulted in all-nighter shootings, with cast and crew fighting fatigue on-set. “Once on set, filming takes a long time,” says Han. “We shot for 48 hours sometimes. We voted whether to sleep then film, or just keep filming.”
Behind the scene footage attests of this, as exhausted cast and crew conduct sleep-deprived democracy in Woo-jin’s penthouse, voting between starting from 4am in the morning and working all night, or starting from the evening and working for 24 hours straight. “I would say ‘once more’ if I didn’t like even the slightest thing,” confirms Park.
This approach created havoc for the budgetary pressure of the film’s production. “I thought a producer’s main job was scheduling and staying within the budget,” says Lim. “In that sense, I failed. Oldboy was behind schedule and over budget.”
The first budget that Lim raised was 3.3 billion won ($2.8m today), “everyone had to make sacrifices to stay within that budget”, says Lim, but the final production would top $5m. “If anything went wrong, it would cost money,” says Han, “the weather didn’t help. Shooting what was on the schedule each day was really hard. The schedule was made to fit the budget, but 48 days increased to 72. I played the bad guy a lot. I would yell and swear and demand why everyone wasn’t moving faster.”
Assistant director Han Jang-hyuk says Park was known for many things as a director, one of them was falling behind schedule. “So the producer and his wife used all their credit cards to keep filming,” says Park, “they never told me, so I did a lot of takes. When I heard that later, I felt so sorry, and grateful.”
In some respects, Park was a big budget visionary shacked by Oldboy’s humbler backing. “I was overly ambitious, so I asked for too much,” says Park, who even asked the production team to stop buses destined for Pukyong University so the audience would not know the film was shot in Busan.
‘I thought this could be my last project’
While anchored by the experienced Park and Choi, the wider cast and crew of Oldboy suffered jitters from their collective inexperience. On the first day of filming Park had to gently berate Kang for her trigger-happy approach as she starts performing before being given the directorial green light, “Why are you starting when I haven’t even said ‘Ready’ or ‘Action’?” he asks, palms pointing up in disbelief.
“I was ignorant about analysing the character, distributing my energy, or what role the character plays in the drama,” recalls Kang, “during filming, I kept feeling anxious, nervous and overwhelmed”. The crew was similarly green behind the ears, “I was so inexperienced then,” says production designer Ryu Seong-hee, “I was doing things that could badly affect the movie. Every time we set up for a scene and the cast and crew arrived, my heart beat so fast... I thought this film could end up being my last project.”
“I was new back then,” says costume designer, Cho Sang-kyung, “so I didn’t know Korean films or industry trends”. When filming at KPN High School in Sancheong, Kang Dae-sang, the school’s principal at the time, was startled by the “young guys” that flooded his school for filming, “there were a lot of crew members, all young. They smoked a lot and drank canned coffee – they drank it endlessly”.
A term that repeatedly finds itself in Oldboy overviews, is the concept of the film being highly stylised. This was achieved with fearless design and production staff which Park entrusted to allow their ideas to come to fruition. “The director was very open-minded,” says Choi. “He asked opinions of all the crew, down to the youngest member.”
‘You think I’m a young rapper?’
This spirit of collaboration was less appealing to Choi when it came to his appearance in Oldboy, where his wild shock of dirty and shaggy hair gave a now iconic look that was the brainchild of makeup and hair director, Song Jong-hee: “The Oh Dai-su I remember was hot-tempered. I thought there was something in his environment that he couldn’t overcome. So that made me think of extended and very curly hair. I told Choi that I wanted to give him this hair. He said, ‘you think I’m a young rapper?’”
Choi felt he looked like a “rotten thatched roof” and “even for someone locked up for 15 years, it was too much. But she [Song] insisted on it.” Park mediated between the two and it was Song’s desire for the style which convinced him to let her do it. “It was called a foil perm,” says Choi. “You have to have done it to understand. Your hair gets wrapped up in foil for three hours. I thought they’d put my hair in the microwave.”
Oldboy bucks the industry trend in another significant way with its use of green, a colour often shunned in films. “All the lighting in Oldboy had some green in it,” says lighting director, Park Hyun-won. “In the script, Oh Dae-su spent years locked up in a room. After time passed, it looked like mould. We shot on film then, and green is a colour everyone rejects. Everyone thought that green shouldn’t show up on film. I thought that green should be expressed... I thought I should use the colour the film industry hates the most.”
“Green is the colour of nature but it’s also used in portraits of the sick or the crazy,” says production designer, Ryu Seong-hee, “there’s a lot of confined, claustrophobic space. So we naturally thought of certain lighting tones. The green light we use in movies isn’t a natural green”. According to Lim, “the lighting director contributed a lot to Oldboy. In order to reveal details in the dark parts that are barely visible, he spent hours setting up the lights.”
The octopus and the corridor
Oldboy is peppered with iconic scenes, from Dae-su tumbling from the battered red suitcase on the rooftop garden (the poster image in the US remake) to the final showdown with Lee Woo-jin in his wealthy modern penthouse with pond-filled floors. Park himself claims when Dae-su first met Lee Woo-jin it was “the most rewarding scene in the movie”, the shooting of which required Yoo Ji-tae to perform several takes while being tightly mentored by the vastly more experienced Choi. However, for fans of the film and cultural impact for both the audience and other filmmakers, there are two scenes which define Oldboy’s legacy more prominently: the octopus and the corridor.
The octopus scene, described as “one of the great black-comic moments of Korean cinema” by one critic, sees Dai-su devour a live octopus as his first meal after imprisonment, tearing into the flesh as the tentacles wrap and curl around his face. A crew member salted the octopus (a live one was used) before the shot, much to Choi’s amusement, who would also break into fits of laughter between takes. Park meanwhile could be found doubled-over in laughter as his leading man attempted to get it right (“Director!” Choi jokingly protests after a take). Cast and crew would then gather and watch back takes in collective fits of laughter. The light humour of the making-of scene does not match the intensity of the on-screen action, which illustrates the raw frustration of Dae-su on his release.
As for the corridor scene, this iconic single take shot sees Dai-su battle the private prison’s gang, a fight of impossible odds which combines almost surreal survival skills with desperate street scrapping. Park found action scenes “a bother” and turned to director friend Ryoo Seung-wan, who recommended Yang Kil-yong, who was hired as martial arts director. “It was the first film I did as a martial arts director,” says Yang.
The storyboard of the corridor fight scene involved several differing shots, with the camera flicking between close-ups of Dae-su's face, over the shoulder shots of the gang in his midst, frames of fists clashing in mid-air and overhead shots of the melee. On set, Park made the decision to change direction.
Choi says: “Director Park called me and said, ‘Why don’t we do this in one take?’. The guy has to fight a lonely, wearisome battle against a formidable foe. So we changed the choreography on site.” Yang says that sequences in Korean action films contain fast editing, leaving him concerned how the audience would receive Park’s single shot vision.
“I was taught that actions carry emotions. So I tried to keep that going. I think there were 60 to 70 moves,” says Yang. “Action scenes are way harder than working out. And he [Choi] had to act, too. He was so tired, he could barely stand. He was about to drop dead.” Choi says that despite several takes, Park would not accept it.
“He [Park] said something was missing,” says Choi. “After doing over ten takes, I started getting nauseous. That crafty director waited until I actually got tired. So we did 16 or 17 takes.” When Park announces he is happy with the scene, a sweat-drenched Choi, his black shirt now a second skin, is congratulated by the applauding crew.
There is a large slice of cinematic liberty taken in shooting the scene, bending away from realism and instead providing a more theoretical final product that establishes Dae-su’s doggedness and nothing-to-lose outlook. It seems inconceivable that Dae-su could prosper, especially with a knife protruding from his back for much of the fight, but to illustrate Dae-su’s mental state it is necessary to stretch believability. In another sense the scene’s missed punches and slip-ups enhance the realism of the encounter, as the private prison’s staff (who are not primarily professional enforcers) do battle with Dae-su’s self-guided training from his private prison room.
A ‘monster’ of its time
The timing of Oldboy’s creation also suggests it is a uniquely formed film, one that the current era would undoubtedly make differently. “It was a monster born out of all the circumstances of the times,” says Ryu. Looking back on his attention for detail in everything he shot, specifically in asking the production team to stop buses in the background, Park says, “if it were now, I would check whether it’d be noticeable in the movie. If it’s a problem, then we fix it with computer graphics or something easier.”
Lighting director Park says films since Oldboy are done much quicker, “The crew [today] are told to keep shooting fast. So movies now don’t move you as much. I feel that doing things fast enabled low-quality films to keep getting made.”
Another South Korean director, Ryoo Seung-wan, friend and sometimes on-set colleague to Park, says of Oldboy: “This is a very vulgar story. A father and daughter fall in love. Can it get any worse than that? How could he pull it off? It explores the fundamental sense of guilt and the issue of good and evil. It asks these questions non-stop for 100 minutes.”
For Park, his vision was simple. “It sounds vague, but I thought people would watch it if it was interesting,” says Park of the final film. “That was the simple idea I had while making it. I just tried to make an interesting film. More people came to see it than I expected.”
Luckily for Park, plenty of people across the world found Oldboy interesting. While the recent months have been filled with the buzz around Boon Joon Ho’s Parasite and its haul of global awards, it was Oldboy that first turned heads in the West towards the explosive power of modern Korean cinema.
The cast and crew quotes in this article are sourced from the documentary, Old Days.