Park Chan-wook never expected Oldboy to become a classic. When the South Korean auteur was directing his famously violent story of revenge, he remembers being so worried that audiences would immediately reject it that he never considered the alternative. "We had a lot of concerns about how the audience would take it," director Park tells A.frame. "There are taboo elements in the film, and we were afraid that the audience would be so disgusted by it that they might just walk out of the theater."
Oldboy follows a businessman Oh Dae-su (played by Choi Min-sik) who is kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years. When he is released without any explanation, he sets out to find his captors and enact his vengeance. Revealing the film's "taboo elements" would spoil its biggest twists for those who have yet to see it. Any doubts that Park had about how the film would be received didn't deter him from making it. "I was younger at the time," he says. "I had the courage to push forward, regardless of those concerns."
At the time, little did he know that Oldboy would be the film that would make him one of the most revered filmmakers in the world, earning him the praise of iconoclasts like Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee. "When it was released in Korea and then screened months later at Cannes, there was such a passionate response to the film," Park reflects. "It's not enough to say it felt good. It was actually really shocking."
Now, 20 years after its release, Oldboy's legacy lives on. In honor of its milestone anniversary, the film has been restored and remastered in 4K and will be released in theaters by Neon. Among certain cinephile circles, the movie's rerelease is being discussed with an almost religious fervor. "I hope a lot of people who don't know about the film and have never even heard of it get a chance to see it," says the director. "I'm very curious about how younger audiences will find the film. Will they find it as shocking as audiences did 20 years ago?"
So, what about Park himself? How does he look back on Oldboy with the benefit of two decades? According to the filmmaker, when he revisits past work, he tries not to spend too much time thinking about what he would change. Instead, he sees each of his films as a time capsule, the end result of the countless choices that he and his collaborators made together at the time.
"And that’s not to say that Oldboy is perfect," he observes. "Every film is always the product of the collaborators that I worked with at that particular time and at that particular age. They all came in and brought their full capabilities and heart to the project. We all tried our best with what we had at the time, so it's really a record of the time when we made it. I purposefully try not to think about what could have been done differently. I don't think you need to."
For Park, Oldboy marked a turning point in more ways than one. The success of the film — it won the Grand Prix when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004 — granted its director a chance to move beyond the stripped-down style of his previous work. "Before Oldboy, I strived for a minimalist style, like when I was making Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. When I went to make my next film, I wanted to do the exact opposite. As a result, Oldboy was made with excessive visual expression," he explains. "It felt very freeing to have experimented at both ends of that spectrum."
It was the experience of making Oldboy that gave Park the confidence to push his personal style even further in his follow-up, 2005's Lady Vengeance. "I had tried one style and another, and my toolbox had gotten bigger and more varied," he says. "I gained real confidence, which made it so that I could fill Lady Vengeance with even more rich visual, stylistic elements."
In the years since the filmmaker completed The Vengeance Trilogy — which comprises Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance — Park has only further honed and heightened his signature style. However, he insists that his own creative process hasn't changed much. As a matter of fact, it was Oldboy that united Park with many of the artists that have since become some of his closest collaborators. "The crew members that I worked with on Oldboy have kind of become my orchestra," he says. "I've continued to work with many of those people, including Chung-hoon Chung, my director of photography; Ryu Seong-hie, my production designer; and Jo Yeong-wook, my composer."
Most filmmakers who had a film as rapturously received as Oldboy likely would have felt the pressure to top it with whatever film they made next. But not Park, who tries his best not to think of each film he makes as a make-or-break endeavor, but as the latest chapter in one long, ongoing story. Or like one inning in a game of baseball.
"I'm the type of person who doesn't feel that kind of pressure. If we were to compare my career to a baseball game, let's say, I'm a batter who just won a game for his team," he muses. "You might think you'd need to win the next game, but I think that pressure only comes if you think of each project and film as one individual game. But I see my entire career as one game. So, if I hit a home run during one at-bat, and then the next time I step up to the plate, I strike out, that's fine, because I've previously made a home run."
"I try to have that kind of a wider view of my career," Park concludes. That perspective has also allowed the filmmaker to experiment with different creative endeavors throughout the second part of his career. To date, he's not only directed 11 features, but also several short films, documentaries, two series (2018's The Little Drummer Girl and the forthcoming Max miniseries, The Sympathizer), and even created original works for art museums. "It's always enjoyable trying out these different formats," he says, "especially the projects that I've made with my brother, Park Chan-kyong."
"Those shorts and music videos don't quite have the same level of pressure as features, where you have to try to return the initial investment after it's released," Park notes. "The works that I've made for art museums, for instance, are a lot more freeing to make. As an artist, making them feels like taking moments to breathe."
As for what he strives for in his features, the answer is simple: Timelessness. Ahead of Oldboy's rerelease, Park believes that first-time viewers' response to the film may tell him, once and for all, whether he's made something that can truly withstand the test of time. "Will the style of the film feel old to younger and new viewers?" he wonders. "If it doesn't, that means even 50 or 100 years from now, it still won't feel old to audiences then."
"That's even more important than box office numbers and financial success," Park says. “The biggest goal for me as a filmmaker is to make a film that can last. I hope I'll see that's the case with Oldboy now."
By Alex Welch