Great Moments in Cinema: Oldboy

These days, it seems there is a lot of talk among movie geeks about films being “game-changers.”  As an acquaintance of mine on Facebook put it, it’s not enough for films to just be good anymore, instead they have to reinvent cinema as we know it.  For example, The Avengers (2012) was touted as such, and was said to represent a shift in blockbuster entertainment from grim and gritty (think Christopher Nolan’s Batman series) action films, to a much more fun and ostentatious mode of storytelling.  Avatar (2009) was similarly hyped as a game-changer, and audiences were told it was going to mark a revolution in the field of both special effects and 3D, though this hype mostly came straight from the mouth of the film’s creator, James Cameron.  It looks like the upcoming Pacific Rim (2013) – a movie I am really, REALLY looking forward to, by the way – is the next big geek property to be labeled by the movie nerd blogosphere as a game-changer.

The truth of the matter is that most of this hype turns out to be a bit overblown, and the films usually don’t represent anything more than solid popcorn entertainment (or the death of cinema as we know it, depending on your feelings toward them).  However, every now and then a movie comes along that represents a quiet paradigm shift that isn’t always recognized until much later.  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Speed Racer (2008) are good examples of this phenomenon (not to mention contenders for a future Cinematic Soulmates column), in that they represent a new language of cinema, one that understands and taps into the new ways that audiences consume media.  Another good, early example is director Chan-wook Park’s harrowing masterpiece, Oldboy (2003), a film that practically emblematizes the 21st Century and features a thrilling sequence that is at once wholly cinematic, but firmly rooted in the visual and storytelling style of video games.  This sequence is the subject of today’s column.  A word of warning before we begin: while I have tried to keep the spoilers to a minimum, it is always best to tread lightly with this particular movie, as the plot relies almost entirely on shock and surprise.  So if you have not seen Oldboy, I would advise you to proceed with caution.  With that out of the way, let’s get to it.

The film follows the exploits of Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi in an outstanding performance), a drunkard and an all-around lousy father who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years by mysterious captors who will not speak to him or even tell him why he is being held.  During that time, Dae-su spends his days watching TV, working out, and teaching himself how to fight, all while trying to keep from going insane.  At the end of his 15 year sentence, Dae-su is released and given money, clothes, and a cell phone.  He is told that he must track down the person responsible for his imprisonment, or everyone he has ever cared about will be killed.  Dae-su immediately sets out on his quest, stopping first to test his fighting skills on  some street punks and then visiting a sushi bar for a meal of live, writhing octopus.  Along the way, he meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a lovely young sushi chef who agrees to help Dae-su with his mission.  Together, they soon uncover the identity of the gang that runs the prison, and Dae-su, armed only with a hammer and his self-taught skills, pays their leader a visit and performs a bit of amateur dentistry on him.  While he has no problem getting in, Dae-su finds that getting out proves to be much tougher when he comes face to face with a hallway full of angry henchmen, all of whom are keen to stop him.

The sequence is brutal, kinetic and exciting, leaving the viewer breathless and spent by the time it finally ends, and it is wholly indicative of filmmaking in the modern era.  It’s a stunning sequence not only because of the content, but because of how it is filmed, utilizing an entirely new and visceral cinematic grammar that is inspired by video games.  Shot in one seemingly long and uninterrupted take – though in truth, the sequence was filmed over the course of many days, and then subtle editing and CGI effects were employed to make it look seamless – Dae-su makes his way from one end of the hallway to the other, using only his trusty hammer and his body, toughened by years of isolation, to completely smash, punch, and kick his way through the unending onslaught of bad guys.  The sequence is filmed in such a way that it resembles side-scrolling video martial arts games such as Shinobi (1987) or Kung Fu (1984).  While those games are each more than 20 year old, their influence on the film nevertheless represents a thoroughly modern mindset, one that sees filmmakers who grew up playing those games translating their aesthetics into a cinematic context that can be understood and appreciated by a new generation of audiences who have also grown up with the language of video games.  Some would argue that these types of games no longer appeal to gamers who are used to much more advanced styles of graphics and storytelling, but there is a sense of nostalgia for these types of games that is experienced even by those who never grew up with them.  Thus, gamers are familiar with the language of these games, and will respond to it when they see it utilized in a film like Oldboy.

More importantly, this sequence represents Chan-wook Park’s understanding of audiences in the 21st Century, and serves as a perfect illustration of how to utilize that understanding to craft films that will appeal to media savvy viewers.  Chan-wook realizes that audiences in the modern era are confronted with more types of media than ever before, and that filmmakers can tap into this media saturation by appropriating elements of one type of medium into another.  Chan-wook Park stages the scene so that the audience is watching Dae-su Oh makes his way from one end of the hall to the other, battling the henchman the whole way.  The sequence captures the feeling of a video game better than most video game movies.  He’s appropriating the style of one medium, and adapting it to his preferred medium of film.  This type of appropriation can also be seen in the films of Edgar Wright and the Wachowskis, directors who have adapted the language of video games and cartoons into their films, and have developed a sort of hyperactive style that is indicative of the sort of ADD-style attention spans that have seem to become the norm in the 21st Century.  Audiences no longer focus their attention on a film or TV show.  Instead, they are checking their Facebook, texting their friends, playing Angry Birds, or engaging in any number of other activities while a film runs in the background.  In order to draw attention, filmmakers must present something  that taps into the overactive cognition of modern audiences, and films such as Speed Racer and Scott Pilgrim and even the Crank films do just that.  In the case of Oldboy, while the scene isn’t edited to the point of incoherence, it nevertheless draws attention because of how it is filmed, and because it speaks a cinematic language that is understood by an audience that has become familiar with the idea of fragmented media.  It is flashy and kinetic without being overbearing, and it triggers a response because it is perfectly tuned to the mindset of modern viewers.  Add in the fact that the direction is excellent, the performances are fantastic, and the music complements the sequence perfectly, and you have all the ingredients for a great moment in cinema.

Oldboy may not have changed the face of cinema, or reinvented the way we watch movies or anything like that, it nevertheless is an important film because it represents a shift in the language of cinema.  Movies have had to adapt to the ways in which audiences consume media in the 21st Century, and Oldboy is a film that exists on the cusp of that evolution.  It is indicative of the new cinematic grammar that is informed by video games and attention spans that have been stretched thin by advances in communication technologies.  As more and more audiences grow up with these technologies and learn how to navigate them, more and more films will be made to appeal to those audiences.  As the years wear on, Oldboy will no doubt begin to look quaint (though, given its subject matter, that is kind of a weird thing to say), but it nevertheless deserves at least a little bit of recognition as a film that helped usher in a new era of movies, one that is perfectly suited to audiences of the modern era.

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