Oldboy: revisited

A screenshot from 'Oldboy' / Courtesy of ShowEast

It’s fascinating to me just how much and how little my international students know about Korea and its culture. Many of them will talk passionately with me about each member of NCT, recount the various releases of Seventeen, and provide opinions about the ongoing saga between Bang Si-hyuk and Min Hee-jin. Then, these very same students will look pensively at the board and ask, “Professor, what does BoA mean?” or “Who is Lee Hyori? Is she an actor?”

With this in mind, I decided to show my Korean Cinema students Park Chan-wook’s 2003 masterpiece “Oldboy” yesterday. I think Park is one of the true greats of Korean art. Yes, people will talk about RM’s latest solo work as a 4-star production and “Itaewon Class” as edgy and progressive. But none of these truly compares to what director Park has produced over the years. A long list of breathtaking movies, memorable characters, and scenes and moments that stay with you years, decades even, after watching them.

With it being July 5th, a date heavily featured in the movie, I decided it was our fate to watch it together. I had previously omitted it from courses because I was worried it was too provocative to show in a university classroom. None of the class had seen it and only a few had even heard of it. I provided a disclaimer before we began: anyone that felt uncomfortable during the movie was welcome to leave the class. A few looked at me with a smirk, as if to say, “Professor. Don’t worry. You’re old movies can’t shock us.”

Originally released in November 2003, the movie became an instant hit here in Korea. It also became one of the first pieces of Korean culture to have an impact on the West. If there is a Hallyu talked about today, the spread of culture from Korean shores to the outside world, “Oldboy” is one of the earliest riders. While the 2002 drama “Winter Sonata” and Bae Yong-joon had captured the hearts of horny Japanese housewives with its saccharine and 추천 nostalgic look at first love, achieving success in East Asia was one thing. Gaining recognition in Europe and America was another. But that is exactly what “Oldboy” and Park Chan-wook did in a world long before either “Squid Game” or “Parasite” were born.

Quentin Tarantino was influential in helping it become the first Korean film to win Cannes’ Grand Prix award and has frequently sung the praises of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Winning that prestigious award in 2004 saw many Koreans in tears. There was a sense of immense pride at the recognition the country was receiving, emerging out of the shadows of Japanese colonization, domestic dictatorship, and the existential dread of the Asian Financial Crisis.

So dark were those periods of oppression that the freedom that finally emerged was clutched and exploited by Korean artists as greedily as possible. Park himself suggests that the election of President Kim Dae-jung in 1998 was pivotal in allowing freedom of expression to finally flourish. An explosion of art emerged, painted by people such as Kim Jee-won, Ryoo Seung-wan, Jang Sun-woo, and Hong Sang-soo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *