It could be hardly doubted that the borderline between genres of horror and thriller in contemporary cinema is a subject to continuous merging. The primary reason for this phenomenon is that both genres appeal to the same core human emotion of fear, and they both use quite similar techniques to invoke fear in the audience. Therefore, in some cases, it might be difficult to determine the exact genre of a particular movie which deals with suspense, fear, psychological problems, and threatening imagery. One of the best examples of blending the border between genres of thriller, horror, philosophical drama, and neo-noir detective is Oldboy, the 2003 film by Park Chan-wook, which was critically appraised by winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 (Lee 128).
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The movie under consideration is the combination of immensely violent as well as sexual imagery that might appear disturbing and horrifying to some audience. However, it is not presented in the film for the sole purpose of shocking value. On the contrary, this imagery is used as the medium for discussing difficult philosophical questions along with painting psychological portraits of the movie’s characters. The primary purpose of this review is to overview the connection of Oldboy with American noir film tradition and to discuss the philosophical motifs, which play a significant role in the understanding of the film’s meaning.
The Overview of the Plot
First of all, it is essential to dwell upon the discussion of the movie’s plot in order to put further reasoning and analysis in the proper context. The movie begins with the scene in which the primary character of the film, named Oh Dae-su, gets into the police station because he is violently drunk. The man has missed the birthday of his little daughter because of this incident, and after that, Dae-su’s friend comes to bail him out. While the friend is busy with the telephone call, Oh Deu-su is kidnapped and put in a very strange prison for Oh only for 15 years. During this period of time, the man does not know anything about his kidnappers, he only knows that his wife is murdered (and his fingerprints were found at the crime scene) and his daughter is adopted in Sweden. It is worth mentioning that the scenes of Deu-su being in prison could be considered as deeply horrifying as they depict the physical and psychological suffering of the protagonist.
When Oh Deu-su is finally released out of jail, he is preoccupied with the eager to get revenge for the loss of his loved ones and such long captivity. From this point in the plot, the movie turns into the direction of neo-noir detective as Oh Deu-su is focused on the finding of his tormentor. Numerous scenes of immensely graphical violence are found in this part of the movie. Finally, when Oh Deu-su finds his opponent, the film takes a deep dive into the elaboration on philosophical questions, developed in the context of a nearly classical canon of Greek tragedy. The final leg of the movie is filled with plot twists that are not incorporated in the film just for the sole purpose of surprising the audience, but instead, they add significant value to the overall message of the film.
Oldboy as the Korean Interpretation of the Noir Genre
Since the plot of Oldboy is overviewed, it is possible to focus on the discussion of how the neo-noir genre is transformed in the Korean cinema tradition and, particularly, by Park Chan-wook. As it is mentioned by McCracken, Korean directors “use elements of mainstream genres, but adapt them in stylish new ways, and in so doing are able to make films that are both commercially and critically successful” (167). Numerous examples provided by the author indicate that Korean cinema is not merely copying genre conventions and topics from Western cinema, but it is preoccupied with the development of a unique cinematographic style.
McCracken also mentions that noir is a considerably difficult genre to determine in a strict formula (170). However, there are several key elements that are found in the majority of the movies identified as noir films. They are the following: the morally ambiguous protagonist, the “femme fatale,” rain-soaked cities at night as the common location, as well as “the use of flashbacks, first-person voice-over narration, violence, and stories based around crimes” (McCracken 170). It should be mentioned that these characteristics are found as well in Oldboy; however, Park Chan-wook employs them not to stylize his movie in accordance with traditional Western noir film aesthetics, but rather to create a Korean-specific setting, in which deep philosophical problems are investigated, which is also not typical for American noir movies.
Philosophical and Psychological Motifs in Oldboy
As it was previously mentioned in brief, Oldboy is written and developed in such a way that it resembles classical Greek tragedies. In particular, it is worth mentioning that Oldboy is a part of the trilogy by Park Chan-wook, which also includes Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance. As it is stated by Lee, the story of revenge is “the most fundamental form of tragedy,” and thus the authors find the connections between the narrative qualities of Oldboy and the famous Greek tragedy of Oedipus (128). Not only the overall character of Oh Deu-su and his path depicted in the movie resemble the character and path of Oedipus, but also the final twist of the movie brings up and reinforces the motif of incest, which is central to the original Greek tragedy (Lee 133).
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It is also highly important to mention the perspective from which the movie is analyzed by Jeon (713). He argues that the most important aspects of the movie’s overall idea and message are motifs of trauma and forgetting, which are discussed from the perspective of Freudian psychology (715). And it is also important to state that the mentioned topics are also very common in the literature of Greek tragedy. Therefore, it is possible to observe that, in general, the story of Oh Deu-su is the modern interpretation of the Oedipus myth.
In conclusion, it is essential to mention that Oldboy is one of the most creative movies in terms of the use of narrative elements as well as visual techniques for reaching the final purpose of catharsis. As it is exemplified in this review, the structure of the movie is considerably complex as it includes the use of genre conventions from horror, thriller, neo-noir detective, and psychological drama. Vey graphic violence and sexuality is used in Oldboy as a means of developing the characters and posing philosophical problems. In overall, it should be concluded that the movie by Park Chan-wook represents a comprehensive, honest, and creative investigation of the dark sides of human nature.
Jeon, Joseph Jonghyun. “Residual Selves: Trauma and Forgetting in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique, vol. 17, no. 3, 2009, pp. 713-740.
Lee, Hee-Seung Irene. “‘My name is Oh Dae-su’: A Mirrored Image of Oedipus in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.” Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema, vol. 8, no. 2, 2016, pp. 127-139.
McCracken, Chelsea. “Oldboy and Korean Film Noir.” Asian Cinema, vol. 23, no. 2, 2012, pp. 167-182.