How Park Chan-wook’s Violent Mind-Bender Kickstarted the Korean Wave

For the lucky few who caught Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy during its original, limited U.S. theatrical release in 2005, the film landed with the full force of the Korean cultural wave that was yet to come. Here, seemingly out of nowhere, was a viscerally disturbing cinematic vision — live octopus-eating, hand-to-hand combat via claw-tooth hammer and a climax involving double incest and the severing of a human tongue — but one delivered in a style as baroquely accomplished as anything Hollywood or American indie cinema had ever produced. The experience was that rarest of aesthetic shocks to the system (perhaps now extinct in our late, smartphone-everywhere era), like landing in a country and culture totally foreign to you for the first time, or stumbling onto a landmark work from a true master artist — who, somehow, you hadn’t even known existed.

To celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, Neon is rereleasing Oldboy in U.S. cinemas Aug. 16. Park personally supervised a digital restoration and remastering of the film in 4K HDR for the occasion.

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In the early 2000s, the word was out among critics and film buffs that Korean cinema could be the next exciting new thing in world cinema (for the American mainstream, this reality was still many years off). Oldboy was an instant hit in South Korea upon its release in November 2003, and it was added at the very last minute to the competition lineup of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where Quentin Tarantino happened to be serving as chair of the jury. It then made history as the first Korean film to win Cannes’ Grand Prix, missing out on the first-place Palme d’Or to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (an artistic judgment that hasn’t aged so well). Tarantino, however, made no secret of how much he admired and preferred Park’s film, insisting to interviewers everywhere that he had campaigned on behalf of Oldboy but had been outvoted. Members of Park’s team say they spotted Tarantino in the crowd at no fewer than three separate screenings of Oldboy during Cannes, including the international premiere. (Tilda Swinton, also on the jury that year, jokingly warned Park to watch out because Tarantino would probably “steal a lot” from Oldboy.)

Korean sales veteran Youngjoo Suh, who negotiated the international distribution deals for Oldboy that followed, says Park’s success at the festival was seismic for the Korean industry. “It was the first example of a Korean film winning global acclaim,” she says. “Distribution and remake offers started pouring in, and more film financiers started coming to Korea. Oldboy really raised the world’s interest in Korean film.”

No one film, nor even a single art form, can claim responsibility for instigating the phenomenal global growth of Korean pop culture that’s still underway (Bong Joon-ho’s now-classic Memories of Murder also came out in 2003), but it’s hard to overstate Oldboy‘s influence on a generation of young Korean film professionals, Suh says. “So many took encouragement and inspiration from Oldboy,” she adds. Consider even the most obvious example: Would Squid Game, Netflix’s most widely watched series, one that borrows heavily from the bleak, genre-blending absurdist tone and style of early Park, even exist in the absence of Oldboy? Almost certainly not.

The film’s international impact was also a function of the DVD era. Oldboy didn’t release theatrically in North America until March 2005 (such was the pace of things back then), earning just $69,000 from a smattering of locations in its opening weekend and topping out at $707,000. But DVD sales would prove to be “long, stable and strong,” Suh says. The film was put on plastic in the U.S. by U.K.-based distributor Tartan Films under its influential “Asia Extreme” label. Thanks in no small part to the movie’s many WTF moments, it went on to enjoy a long reputation as a word-of-mouth must-see among genre aficionados and mainstream movie lovers alike.

Tartan remains beloved by old-school film buffs for the vital role it played in making exciting new international cinema accessible to a whole generation of home viewers. But in an era of vastly less cultural representation for people of East Asian descent across the American pop cultural firmament, the label also reflects the flattening, for many U.S. cultural consumers, of the distinct contours of Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean cinema into one “extreme” Asian genre — which occluded much of the sociocultural context that gave rise to some of these individual directors’ graphic aesthetics in the first place.

Not that Oldboy wasn’t extreme. Twenty years later, with its spoilers and most shocking moments already totems of cinema history, Oldboy still stirs the blood.

“I wanted to make something that felt too real,” Park said back in 2003 at a public event held in Seoul shortly after Oldboy became a local hit (but before its Cannes premiere). “I said from the start, I wanted the film to be felt physically, not just emotionally. I wanted the audience to be tired when they finished the film. I wanted their bodies to be tired.”

He added: “I like that kind of experience. I don’t know how people can find any fun in watching mindless films. If you want a peaceful rest, have a bath. Why go to the cinema?”

A lurid, wretched neo-noir that draws equally from the storytelling aesthetics of Japanese manga and Greek tragedy, Oldboy is anything but a soothing viewing experience. The film is a loose adaptation, by Park and co-writers Hwang Jo-yun and Lim Jun-hyung, of a manga of the same name that ran in Japan from 1996 to 1998.

BTS on Oldboy.

Cast and crew on Oldboy were especially passionate about making the film, sometimes working 48 hours straight to get it finished. The shoot was originally scheduled to last 48 days but ballooned to 72.

To refresh, a spoiler-filled plot summary: Oafish businessman Oh Dae-su (played by a volcanic Choi Min-sik) skips his young daughter’s birthday for a night on the town and ends up arrested for public drunkenness. As soon as he’s released by the police, he’s snatched again by unknown thugs and deposited in what appears to be a shabby hotel room with only a TV for company. Dae-su learns from the television that his wife has been murdered and that he’s the chief suspect. He tries to escape, practices boxing, repeatedly attempts suicide and steadily loses his mind. He’s held for 15 years without explanation. Then, just as mysteriously as he was captured, he’s released. He vows vengeance and desperately seeks to discover who has done this to him and why. With a spectacularly deranged manga-like hairstyle and a smile that looks like he’s simultaneously laughing and howling in psychic agony, a deeply damaged Dae-su’s adventures in the outside world include sating his decade-plus sensory deprivation by eating a live octopus whole (iconic moment one), battling dozens of thugs with only a hammer (iconic moment two) and getting duped into unknowingly having sex with his adult daughter. Eventually, after many more awful happenings, Dae-su’s tormentor is revealed to be the billionaire businessman Lee Woo-jin (a bone-chilling Yoo Ji-tae). Dae-su and Woo-jin, we learn, were high school classmates, and back in the day a hapless Dae-su witnessed the wealthy young Woo-jin committing incest with his sister. Dae-su didn’t even know that what he was seeing was incest — he only recognized the girl — but he briefly gossiped about it, resulting in the shamed sister’s suicide. Twisted by his feelings of God knows what from this memory, Woo-jin devoted his life to punishing Dae-su. In the explosive climax that follows, Dae-su learns that his new lover is actually his grown-up daughter — and that Woo-jin orchestrated the whole thing. Dae-su responds by cutting out his own tongue (iconic moment three) and presenting it to Woo-jin as an offering in exchange for his daughter never being told the truth of the situation. Woo-jin promptly shoots himself in the head. Revenge for revenge, incest for incest. Nobody wins, whatsoever.

1. Choi with the infamous claw hammer during Oldboy’s hallway fight scene. 2. Storyboards for the elaborate sequence, which was shot as one continuous take lasting nearly three minutes.

From left: Choi as Oh Dae-su, with the infamous “claw hammer” during Oldboy’s iconic hallway fight scene; Storyboards for the elaborate sequence, which was shot as one continuous take lasting nearly three minutes.

As the world has gotten to know both Korean cinema and Park Chan-wook better over the past two decades — his two most recent features, The Handmaiden (2016) and Decision to Leave (2022), are women-led stories and considered masterpieces — one mystery around Oldboy and his early filmmaking has endured: How did a cinema this intense and disturbing emerge from this particular director? In countless interviews and public appearances over the years, Park, now 59 and still marquee handsome himself, has always presented as genial, wry, and patiently intellectual — more like the art critic or university professor he once thought he might become than any kind of giddy provocateur or enfant terrible. He’s known to be a devoted husband and father to his wife of 33 years and his adult daughter. Crew members describe him as a generous, humorous collaborator, his scariest form of on-set outburst an occasional heavy sigh. Whence the ultra-violence?

The son of an architect, Park describes his childhood and adolescence to THR as “very mediocre” and “typical of your middle-class kid.” A voracious reader, he found himself drawn to the more titillating moments in the great books but in the innocent way of any curious teenager. Like most of the acclaimed Korean directors of his generation, his first encounters with cinema came from watching movies at home with his family on the American Forces Korea Network, a television channel that for decades broadcast Hollywood and European classics across the Korean peninsula (but without Korean subtitles). He has described being forced to pay close attention to the formal mechanics of filmmaking to follow the story because he couldn’t understand the dialog. If this portrait of the artist as a young man had ended there, Park believes he would have made films that were much more straightforwardly escapist. “But in college, things changed,” he says.

Park earned a degree in philosophy from Seoul’s prestigious Songang University. During this era, South Korea’s pro-democracy uprising against the brutally repressive dictator Chun Doo-hwan was at its peak, with student groups driving much of the action.

“It was so bad that the military police actually resided on campus to prevent the students from demonstrating,” Park remembers. “There was always a mix of tear gas and students throwing rocks at the police. I was in the middle of all that extreme violence happening around me, and it completely crushed my typical middle-class life.”

Scores of students were brutalized and arrested; some were tortured or sexually assaulted by the police. Other students committed suicide as an act of protest.

“All of the things happening increasingly made me feel like a coward,” Park says. As friends and acquaintances were hauled away by the authorities, he remembers intense feelings of rage combined with a profound sense of shame and self-loathing over his own inaction — because of his “fear of the violence.”

When he later found his footing as an artist, these memories found their way into his work only in sublimated form, Park now says.

“I didn’t want to portray this feeling of revenge explicitly, for instance, by having this military dictator assassinated on the screen,” he explains. “Perhaps you could say that would be true revenge. But I was more interested in focussing on that personal feeling of hatred and rage — and how that internally affects us and causes the collapse of our internal self.”

Bong Joon-ho, who’s six years younger than Park but shares both his dexterity with genre and a strong absurdist streak, also has identified the turmoil of recent modern Korean history as a generative force for his generation’s cinematic sensibility.

Speaking with U.S. filmmaker Rian Johnson for the Directors Guild of America last year, Bong said: “I was born and raised in Korea. I went through a military dictatorship. I lived in a society that went through so many changes and tribulations. It’s almost like I felt the absurdity with my own body just growing up in this country, and I’m naturally expressing what I experienced. And I think that’s why when the audience watches these movies, in a few seconds, they’re exposed to all of these different tones. Just naturally, that’s what our lives were like. Things that would happen in the span of 50 years in a peaceful country like Canada happened in the span of like five weeks in Korea. We went through so many different emotions — happiness, sadness, fear — throughout the day.”

Despite its historic success at Cannes and at home in Korea, Oldboy sharply divided leading U.S. critics when it opened stateside. Roger Ebert gave it a rave (“Oldboy is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare,” he wrote), but other prominent critics accused Park of practicing a trendy form of postmodern nihilism (remember when people used to throw that phrase around?) — all genre shocks and empty cinematic virtuosity for its own sake. Overawed by the film’s depravity and stylistic verve, what such critics seemed to miss was how deeply Park’s choices throughout the film were wedded to his thematic interest in the universal destructiveness of masculine rage.

But they certainly weren’t wrong that he had embraced stylistic maximalism with Oldboy. Park achieved his career breakthrough in 2000 with Joint Security Area, an action thriller about a friendship formed between South Korean and North Korean soldiers across the DMZ that ends in tragedy. It became South Korea’s highest-grossing film of all time and helped launch the acting careers of industry icons Lee Byung-hun and Song Kang-ho. (JSA was actually Park’s third feature, after the smaller-budget flops The Moon Is … the Sun’s Dream in 1992 and Trio in 1997. For years, Western critics tended to refer to JSA, which wasn’t widely discovered overseas until the mid-2000s, as his directorial debut — and Park often says he’d be happy if his filmography were remembered that way.) Park followed JSA‘s huge success with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), a gritty, austere and ultraviolent noir about a deaf-mute man who kidnaps the daughter of a wealthy factory owner and demands a ransom to pay for his sister’s kidney transplant.

Although Mr. Vengeance would later be lumped with Oldboy and Lady Vengeance (2005) into Park’s so-called Vengeance Trilogy, he says he actually considers JSA and Mr. Vengeance more of a pair “because they both discuss important societal topics in Korea at that time.” While JSA interrogated the national heartbreak of the ongoing division of the Korean people and peninsula along the DMZ, Mr. Vengeance is more of an allegory employing black humor and violent noir to examine the brutality and rage simmering beneath the growing class divisions of hyper-capitalist South Korea in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

“With Oldboy, I wanted to make a film that wasn’t limited by the need to understand the context and setting of South Korea at the time,” Park explains. “I wanted to explore pure genre and create a more mythological kind of story that anybody can relate to,” he says.

For Mr. Vengeance‘s bleak saga, Park had devised a “deliberately minimalistic style” involving still camera setups with a wide-angle lens and limited dialogue and music. “For Oldboy, we went in the opposite direction in every way,” Park says. That meant constant dramatic camera movement, wordy dialogue and voiceover, sickly green stylized lighting and wildly expressive music.

“The camera was not just there to capture the subject, but it was an expressive character of its own that was also an observer,” says Oldboy cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon, who’s gone on to be an in-demand DP in Korea and Hollywood, having recently lensed Lucasfilm’s Obi-Wan Kenobi series for Disney+ and Warner Bros.’ upcoming Wonka, starring Timothée Chalamet. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so immersed in a script. Of course, everything was carefully storyboarded in advance, but on set, the movement and speed would change, even within the same cut, according to the performance that was happening in front of me.”

Park Chan-wook’s storyboard for the sequence.

Park Chan-wook’s storyboard for the sequence in which Oh Dae-su cuts out his own tongue.

Producer Syd Lim brought the Oldboy project to Park after optioning the rights to the original manga in the early 2000s. Lim recalls long discussions with Park during the development process about how to give the manga’s noir-ish story some of the strange but timeless narrative resonance of Greek tragedy (Korean critics have suggested that the name Oh Dae-su is a reference to Oedipus, but Lim says the similarity of the sound of the names in Korean is a coincidence — although he and Park did discuss Oedipus Rex regularly). Other thematic reference points were some of Kafta’s works and the existential undercurrent of Catholic guilt (both Park and Lim identified as Catholic at the time).

Park says he was initially drawn to the manga by the premise of a man who’s locked up in a hotel room without being told why or how long he’ll be kept there — “much more cruel and brutal” than a prison sentence for a known crime or accusation.

“I saw this as a kind of experiment on humanity itself,” he says.

But Park was underwhelmed by the manga’s version of the plot reveal, which centered in the books on simple boyhood bullying. Today, Park says he never would accept a directing job without a clear solution for how to resolve the story.

“But at that time, I was younger and thought I could do anything,” he adds.

Oldboy‘s dual twists eventually came to Park in tandem, while he was taking a bathroom break during a marathon brainstorm and coffee drinking session with Lim and his co-writers. They had been grasping for a secret that would be suitably extreme to explain the villain’s wildly elaborate revenge plot, but it occurred to Park that the original manga also never adequately explained why the protagonist was suddenly released — after exactly 15 years.

“Why not nine years or thirty years?” Park says. “That’s when I thought of the character of Dae-su’s daughter, and how 15 years would be about the amount of time necessary for her to mature into an adult. Perhaps the crime that Dae-su committed had to do with revealing a secret the villain had involving incest — and then Dae-su is imprisoned and released so that he can receive the same punishment. Both of the mysteries could be resolved by combing them into one.”

He adds: “As soon as I returned from the restroom, I told my producer everything in a rush and that was how the whole story was decided.”

Park then integrated his own creative path in pursuit of the story’s mysteries into the story itself. Near the end of the film, Woo-jin says to Dae-su, “You’ve been asking the wrong question — it’s not why did I lock you up, it’s why did I let you go?”

“Typically, in mystery novels or mystery movies, the plot is about who did it and why,” Park explains. “You almost never question whether these questions themselves are valid. So I thought that putting the questioning of the question into the center of the story would be something quite new — and I think that’s what makes Oldboy the film that it is.”

Lim says he then came up with the idea of casting Choi to play Dae-su because there was a full-page drawing of the character in the manga that happened to look just like the actor. Choi was already a huge star in Korea by that time thanks to his leading roles in some phenomenally successful TV dramas, but he was also a serious stage actor, renowned for his technique and ability to play big.

Casting Yoo Ji-tae as the billionaire villain Lee Woo-jin was a more peculiar choice. Yoo was only 28 years old at the time, while Choi was in his early forties — and the two were supposed to have been contemporaries in high school. Literally, the casting makes no sense, but it suited the mythic archetypes Park was going for — a stunted god of South Korea’s hyper-capitalist era.

“Park wanted this character to be someone whose mental growth has stopped,” explains Lim. “He has wealth and power, and lives in this high-rise castle by himself, but his sense of self is lacking something essential. We thought a younger actor would actually convey that better.”

The age disparity would also highlight how Dae-su’s years of solitary confinement have ravaged and twisted his whole personage.

When Choi’s character, Oh Dae-su, is released from his hotel “prison,” he seeks revenge. Here he tangles with the first man he meets on the outside. Choi has said that he was so immersed in the violent role that he began improvising disturbing dialogue during the shoot. “I was Oh Dae-su when we were making the film,” he says. “I went to the extreme.”

When Oh Dae-su is released from his hotel “prison,” he seeks revenge. Here he tangles with the first man he meets on the outside. Choi has said that he was so immersed in the violent role that he began improvising disturbing dialogue during the shoot. “I was Oh Dae-su when we were making the film,” he says. “I went to the extreme.”

Rewatching Oldboy, with spoilers already in mind, the movie’s most enduringly disturbing moment is undoubtedly Choi’s scorching performance at the climax. Dae-su faces off against Woo-jin in the billionaire’s skyscraper penthouse. Mi-do (Dae-su’s lover, whom he will soon learn is his daughter, played by Kang Hye-jeong) has sent him there with the encouragement that he should make Woo-jin “kneel down and beg for mercy.” Dae-su believes he finally has the full truth, and with it, the upper hand. Instead, he’s confronted with the horrifying reality of his relationship with his lover/daughter. If the first two hours of the film made you think you have watched a character drained of all his human dignity, now prepare to watch him go even lower — to lose all of it. Choi explodes in rage, then instantly repents, screaming that he will be Woo-jin’s “dog” (complete with barking, crawling and shoe-licking). Then, the ornate silver scissors and the tongue business.

To capture this scene, Chung had set up one camera to adhere to Park’s storyboards, and he held a second to adapt on the fly to the dynamics of Choi’s performance.

“My camera was physically very close to him and he felt almost dangerous in that moment. Watching from the viewfinder, even with the awareness that this was merely a performance, it felt like he was going to explode and take me with him,” says the cinematographer. “I remember holding my breath and sighing, or even moaning, at times. I had to warn the sound department to be especially careful about that because I just couldn’t help it.”

L to R: Choi got a bloddy touch-up. Park instructed Choi on the proper way to hold scissors while cutting out one's own tongue.

From left: Choi gets a bloddy touch-up. Park instructs Choi on the proper way to hold scissors while cutting out one’s own tongue.

Choi later explained his experience of that scene during a Korean TV interview by saying, “Words that weren’t in the script came out of my mouth without thinking. I was Oh Dae-su when we were making the film. I don’t remember what I said in that scene. I went to the extreme. I did it until people on the crew said, ‘Please, stop now.’ I was just going with the flow. Maybe it came from my stage experience. It was like surfing. I was riding the wave of his agony.”

It’s precisely via the exercise of extreme style that Park brings Oldboy closer to his vision of the ecstatic truth of male rage. Undoubtedly, he also indulges some in the catharsis and black humor of genre-film violence, but he saves his most disturbing surprises to rub the audience’s faces in its inevitable consequences. In Oldboy, vengeance is grimy, exhilarating, lonely, exhausting, and only fleetingly heroic (think of the hero’s theme song in the film — a solitary horn from a Hollywood Western washed over with doom-laden synths and the relentless march of a drum machine). How the hero will return to normal life after he’s gotten his violent satisfaction is one of the oldest cliches of the Hollywood revenge plot. Oldboy‘s answer: There is no true return, only oblivion or unspeakable shame.

3. Filming the scene involved 16 takes over two days. 4 Choi and Park discussing the now-iconic scene in which Choi does actually eat a live octopus on screen.

From left: Filming the hallway fight scene involved 16 takes over two days; Choi and Park discussing the now-iconic scene in which Choi eats a live octopus on screen.

Choi’s total commitment to embodying Dae-su’s rabidity was also the driving factor that made the infamous octopus scene so memorable, according to Lim. San-nakji is a common Korean dish that involves eating the sliced tentacles of a freshly killed octopus while they’re still squirming with posthumous neural activity. According to the script, Dae-su was served the same fried dumplings over and over during the entire 15 years he spent in the prison hotel, so it was natural to Park — himself a noted connoisseur of traditional Korean cuisine — that Dae-su might want to order something exceedingly fresh, like san-nakji, when visiting a sushi restaurant right after his escape. It was Choi’s suggestion, however, that it would be more impactful and true to Dae-su’s damaged character if he were to order a whole live octopus and stuff it into his mouth headfirst. Choi was a Buddhist vegetarian at the time and behind-the-scenes footage from the production shows him saying a brief prayer and repeatedly apologizing to the octopi used on camera. But he ended up chomping on four of the live creatures to get the shot, which ends, unforgettably, with tentacles squirming out of his mouth and across his face.

5 Lining up a shot of the scene. The idea to eat the entire octopus head first was Choi’s, even though he’s a Buddhist and a vegetarian. 6. Park devised the scene to show how hungry for real food Choi was after eating nothing but dumplings for 15 years.

From left: Lining up a shot of the octopus scene. The idea to eat the entire octopus (head first) was Choi’s, even though he’s a Buddhist and a vegetarian; Park devised the scene to show how hungry for real food Choi’s character was after eating nothing but dumplings for 15 years.

Choi’s go-for-broke spirit extended throughout Oldboy‘s crew members, many of whom were just starting their careers but have since gone on to become some of the most acclaimed craftspeople in the Korean film industry. Park’s drive for visual inventiveness, combined with budgetary constraints, meant that the film quickly fell behind schedule. The shoot was originally scheduled to last 48 days but ballooned to 72. The budget was set at 3.2 billion won (about $3 million), but soared past that mark far before completion. Towards the end of the shoot, Lim, his wife and one of the line producers put production expenses on their personal credit cards in order to keep the shoot going. (“Luckily, the money was recovered later, but it was really tough at the time,” Lim says. If Oldboy had flopped, he believes he would have abandoned the film world for a typical day job.)

Oldboy‘s lighting technician, Park Hyun-won, was already a revered figure in the Korean industry of the early 2000s. The D.P., Chung, credits Park Hyun-won with devising Oldboy‘s expressive lighting and peculiar pallet, which involved leaning heavily into the use of green for darkness and shadows — a tone that picks up details exceedingly well but was generally avoided on film stock in favor of dark blue or black because of how unsettling it feels for viewers. For Oldboy‘s purposes, naturally, icky green was perfect.

“[Park Hyun-won] would take five or six hours to set up the lighting for a single scene, and it drove me crazy watching it as a young producer,” Lim recalls. “I always thought to myself, ‘If we’re only able to shoot three or four shots a day, we’re never going to finish this film.’ But director Park never once rushed him, and looking back now, I know it was this commitment to craft that really brought out the textures and feelings of Oldboy.”

The Korean film industry didn’t establish labor unions until 2005 and prior working conditions on local sets were famously grueling. There were times when the Oldboy cast and crew, fueled by Korean canned coffee and cigarettes, would work for as long as 48 hours continuously. After production stretched past the 12-hour mark, Park, ever non-dictatorial, would hold a vote among the crew about whether to break for a rest or forge on. More often than not, the crew voted to keep going. Chung says that while he was shuddering behind the viewfinder during the filming of Choi’s explosive performance during the climax, several other crew members were passed out on the floor from exhaustion in corners of the set. The sound team also had to be careful not to pick up snoring.

Actress Yoon Jin-seo was just 20 years old and a total newcomer to the industry when she took the role of Lee Soo-ah, the villaian’s suicidal and enigmatic sister, who appears in an important sequence of flashbacks. The performance won her the best new actress award at the 2003 Baeksang Arts Awards, Korea’s version of the Oscars. She’s since gone on to a prominent career, most recently starring in the Netflix crime thriller A Model Family (2022).

“After shooting Oldboy, I thought all film sets would be like that, but I never experienced a film set like that ever again,” she said in a reminiscence about the film for a documentary-length BluRay extra about its creation. “‘So this is what cinema is, I thought.’ Everyone looked out for each other, they really loved the script, and discussed how to improve it. Filmmaking was an all-night discussion — it was amazing. The passion and the tone were unforgettable.”

Ironically, the one moment in which Park forswore stylistic maximalism in favor of naturalism arguably became Oldboy‘s most influential sequence. He ended up creating one of recent cinema’s most memorable action scenes — because he hates action scenes.

As part of his full-on embrace of genre, Park planned a wildly elaborate fight for the moment when Dae-su faces off against scores of thugs in a narrow hallway. “The problem is that I’m not a fan of action movies,” Park says. “I don’t like watching them, and making them stresses me out even more.”

Joint Security Area, his only commercial success at that point in his career, centers on a moment when a dramatic shootout breaks out between the North and South Korean soldiers who have managed to become friends across the DMZ and against the odds. Park says he was so dismayed over the need to find a way to handle the action sequence that he actually asked the producers if they could hire another director to come in and shoot that one scene. They declined.

“What I did on JSA was I looked at the scene again and realized that this isn’t really just a shoot-up; it’s the scene of a tragedy,” he explains. “There’s this blossoming friendship between two men, and it becomes this sad, tension-filled moment. It’s actually a very emotional scene — and that’s how I managed to figure out how to shoot it.”

For Oldboy, Park had sent Choi to train with a Korean boxing champion in preparation for the hallway fight. He hired Yang Kil-yong, one of his industry’s top martial arts coordinators at the time. Together, along with Chung, they had story­boarded a battle that involved nearly 100 shots.

Park notes that Hollywood action scenes often function like balletic interludes, entertaining spectacles to be enjoyed for their own sake and somewhat abstracted from the story. But, although he’s considered a master stylist, he realized he had no interest in that purely formalist exercise of violent action.

“So, on the day before the actual shoot, we held a rehearsal, and as I was watching the scene, I had all these thoughts going through my head,” Park recalls. “First of all, how were we going to get through all these setups I had planned? We were already running short on shooting days. And then I thought back to that earlier situation on JSA, and asked myself, ‘What is the meaning of this scene?’ Because our character wasn’t fighting the actual villain, Woo-Jin; it was just a bunch of nameless thugs.”

With his doubts and dismay growing — “I was failing to find any additional layer,” he says — Park asked the actors to run through the full choreography one more time and told Choi and the stuntmen to go at half-speed to save their energy for the actual shoot. Still, the sequence was so long that Choi collapsed to the floor to catch his breath when he completed the moves.

“He couldn’t even lift his head — and that actually sparked a thought in my head,” Park says. “I thought, ‘Isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to do here?’ The scene was about the entertainment that the genre film provides, but it was more than that. It’s really about this character’s emotion. It’s about this one man’s fight against this big criminal organization and the loneliness and fatigue that he feels. We want the audience to be asking, ‘When will this finally end for him?’”

Park told Chung to scrap their dozens of carefully planned setups and instead shoot the entire sequence as a single wide-angle shot. They ended up shooting the scene, a grueling battle lasting nearly three continuous minutes in a single scrolling shot, in 16 takes over two full days.

“When the actors and stuntmen heard that it was going to be a single take, they gave it their all, expecting to get it done with,” Chung recalls. “But after giving it their all for the first full day, when director Park had us move into the second day, they just couldn’t do it anymore. They were too exhausted. They were actually falling down and their punches didn’t have any strength anymore — and that’s when Park said, ‘OK, I think we got it.’”

Chung adds: “I realized he had been waiting two days for them to be tired, so I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you just ask them to move in a tired manner?’ And he said, ‘That kind of lonely, hopeless movement cannot be performed.’ And he’s right — that fight scene has so much feeling in it. I remember thinking, ‘That’s the power of Park Chan-wook as a filmmaker.’ “

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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