Korean theatrical poster for OldboyCredit: © Show East

Old Boy is a film that churns with such furious energy that by the time the ending
credits roll, the viewer is exhilarated, dazed and slightly fatigued. The film itself is deftly
original, yet at the same time, cleverly incorporates elements from Greek tragedies, Franz
Kafka’s writings, and Shakespeare’s plays. As a result, Old Boy is difficult to place into
any single, summarizing category. However, what cannot be denied is the films dark and
morbid fascination with the concepts of justice, salvation, forgiveness and vengeance.
The film displays these motifs in a mind bending and twisted way. Yet, the most
interesting and perhaps ingenious aspect of Old Boy is the lighting, camera movements,
sound, music, and production design, which are so meticulously and painstakingly
formulated and put together that it creates an eerie sense of “aliveness” in the picture.

Lighting and color are perhaps one of the most integral elements of the film, since
it gives Old Boy its texture and artistic appeal. The overall film is dark, hellish, brooding
and nightmarish. The very first scene where Oh Dae-su clings on to the necktie of a man
about to fall off the roof of a building is indicative of the importance of the lighting. Oh
Dae-su’s face is shrouded in darkness and only the contours of his shabby—almost
menacing—hair is visible due to its contrast against the bright sunlight behind him. As
the film progresses, it becomes glaringly noticeable that green, red and purple are used
frequently to add flavor and texture. The green lighting is incorporated frequently in the
beginning, especially in the scenes that depict Oh Dae-su’s incarceration. The dingy and
grim corridor outside Oh Dae-su’s prison permeates a subtle and sickly green. In the
scene, where Oh Dae-su bangs on his prison door with an aluminum tray, the color
contrast is remarkably vivid, between the bluish green color of the bathroom and the
yellowish red of the carpet and wallpaper. The two colors stand in dire contention and
reinforce the notion of disharmony and dissonance in the film. When Oh Dae-su looks at
the fish tank, outside a sushi restaurant, the glow of an incandescent green inundates the
entire scene, and reflects off of Oh Dae-su’s mangled face. When Oh Dae-su enters the
sushi restaurant, the viewer witnesses a wealth of red and green, once again acting in
contention and subtle complement.

The colors culminate rather well in the final confrontation between Woo-jin
and Oh Dae-su, which takes place inside a luxurious penthouse. The water is a strong
fluorescent green. The walls, Oh Dae-su’s collar shirt, and even the picture frames
share a remarkable crimson tone. However, it is the color purple that dominates and
embellishes the entire scene. These colors combined, along with the glass-filled setting
keeps the mood as cool as moonlight.

The camera movements and angles in Old Boy are successful at inflicting its
viewers with feelings of paranoia and claustrophobia. His dingy cell is displayed from all
sorts of angles, and darkness makes the cell appear smaller and more cramped. When the
viewer learns that this is to be the home of Oh Dae-su for the next fifteen years, there is
an inevitable feeling of uneasiness. The 360 degree camera rotation around Oh Dae-su, as
imaginary ants engulf his body and face, creates a paramount feeling of madness and
chaos. The 360 degree camera rotation also appears in the scene where tongue-less Oh
Dae-su is in a desperate and bloody embrace with Woo-jin. The camera slowly revolves
around the two characters, starting with Woo-jin and slowly turning to portray the terrible
anguish on Oh Dae-su’s face.

In the scene with the elevator, Oh Dae-su positions himself at a one of the corners
with his arms stretched out, clawing at the elevator walls. The camera unexpectedly
zooms out of Oh Dae-su’s body and as a result his body looks distorted and surreal; his
arms look long, stretched beyond the realms of rationality. His fingers slowly scratch and
wiggle across the elevator walls, reminding the viewer of the twitching legs of a squashed
cockroach. The woman who accompanies Oh Dae-su down the elevator, not surprisingly
is frightened and scared.

There are also many extremely close up shots in Old Boy, particularly with the
faces of its characters. The close up shots not only allow the viewers to share an intimate
relationship with the characters, but also provides as a means of displaying a wealth of
emotions—pain, anguish, madness, loneliness, rage—which exorcises any genuine
optimism from the film. One particularly interesting close up shot occurs in the scene
where he is being hypnotized before he is released into the free world. The camera zooms
in on Oh Dae-su’s mangled and distorted face, but unlike many of the other scenes, his
face is brightly lit. Oh Dae-su looks like an old and exhausted lion that has discovered
that it is to be released from captivity and returned into the wild. However, Oh Dae-su’s
face reveals a blissful ignorance due to the ironic fact that his torture has only just begun.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and mysterious shots in the film occurs when
Oh Dae-su follows a delivery boy to an old run-down building. Oh Dae-su and the
delivery boy both enter into the elevator, however, when the elevator door opens again,
Oh Dae-su is nowhere to be seen in the shot; he is simply gone. Subsequently, the camera
suddenly cuts, and displays a Japanese comic book being thrown on the floor. The
camera cuts again to reveal the fear in the eyes of the man who had been reading the
comic book. Next cut shows the claw of a hammer in a particularly high and menacing
position. The series ends, when the camera reveals the man holding the hammer, Oh Dae-
su. What is interesting about this scene is that the concept of cause and effect is jumbled
and played backwards. The viewer initially witnesses the effects and then subsequently,
learns about what is causing those effects. In another scene, there is a flashback to the
past, where Oh Dae-su embraces Mido for the last time before his confrontation with
Woo-jin. In that scene there is a very close up shot of a cup containing a toothbrush, and
as Oh Dae-su approaches the cup, the films cuts back to the present. Soon after, when
two men attempt to take Oh Dae-su down, the film quickly cuts into the past, and reveals
Oh Dae-su taking out a toothbrush from the cup. The film once again cuts back to the
present and shows Oh Dae-su breaking the toothbrush in half and using it as a weapon
against the two men. This scene, much like the scene with the jumbled cause and effect
scheme, portrays a rather complicated fluid of images that jump back and forth through
time, with the aid of rapid cuts. These particular techniques, along with the 360 degree
camera shots, extreme close-ups, and abrupt zoom-outs, all reinforce the notion of
disharmony and dissonance within the film. They succeed in capturing the capricious,
violent, forceful and surreal tone of the film.

The music also succeeds in bringing out the feelings of nocturnal pleasure
and sinister passion. All the songs on the Old Boy soundtrack can be classified as
classical music. Every piece evokes such a strong sense of energy, eloquence and
efficiency, it perfectly complements the film. The music—to a certain degree—has a firm
grip on the emotions and feelings of the viewer. This is evident in the scenes that depict
the most gratuitous violence. During the distasteful tooth pulling scene, staccato and
rapid violin music plays in the background. As a result, the music builds up tension and
suspense, summoning energy. During the climax of the scene, when the hammer goes to
work, ripping out human teeth, the music is played much shorter with lightening speed.
On the other hand, in the adrenaline pumped fighting scene, where Oh Dae-su’s takes out
his rage on a bunch of young punks, in a narrow corridor, a slow and sad trumpet, sounds
in the background. In order to accommodate the music, the fighting scene is quite long
and drawn out. The music gives a sense of the gradual release of Oh Dae-su’s inner rage
that he has suppressed for fifteen years. Yet, the melancholy affect is due to the fact that
he can no longer return to the ordinary businessman he used to be. Oh Dae-su later
claims that he has become a “monster” and that he lives to solely seeks vengeance. The
very last scene, stands as a convincing testament to the powerful impact of music in
cinema. Mido and Oh Dae-su are once again reunited in the snowy wilderness. The
intense whiteness of the picture symbolizes the state of Oh Dae-su, who, through
hypnosis has wiped his horrifying memories clean. He is like an empty shell, merely
living for the sake of existence. As Mido confesses her love for Oh Dae-su, a soft and
slow, but undeniably uplifting music plays in the background. The music establishes an
intense and profound irony because the scene is nothing but repugnant and disturbing. As
much as the images displayed on screen tell us something about the events that are taking
place and the transformation of the characters, music is also equally informative in its
abilities to manipulate mood and emotion.

The overall production design and the props also add certain elements to the
overall scheme of the film. The phone booth which appears in the beginning of the
film evokes warmth and tranquility. In essence, the light coming from the phone booth
illuminates in the massive darkness that surrounds it. It is indeed, inside the phone booth
where he last communicates with his family before his life spins into utter chaos. One
of my favorite props in the entire film is the Francis Bacon film that hangs on the wall
of Oh Dae-su’s prison. The painting depicts an abstract, distorted and grotesque face,
almost a portrait of Oh Dae-su, himself, rotting away in his dirty cell. Under the painting
a caption reads: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone”. The
words are indeed haunting and lyrical, yet when it is applied to Oh Dae-su, the meaning
becomes more abrasive and anguished. The characteristics of the sets tend to deviate
in terms of the location, and the image that is attempting to be portrayed. Oh Dae-su’s
cell looks like a motel room from hell, with putrid blood stains on the floor and a small
archaic television set. Mido’s apartment is similar in that it is disorganized and cluttered
with objects, making it look dirty and run-down. In contrast to these sets, Woo-jin’s
own penthouse is remarkably eloquent and beautifully clean. The disparity between the
living styles, tend to suggest a large gap between the poor and the wealthy. Perhaps, the
director, Park Chan-wook gives Old Boy some social commentary by depicting polarized
characters in the social spectrum.

Films are not always about great acting and splendid dialogue. It is also about
the subtle details that come together to add a more wholesome and saturated picture. Old
Boy is a great example of how music, props, colors, lighting and camera techniques truly
enable a film to transcend into the realm of artistic beauty and wonder. The emotion,
mood and atmosphere with each scene, spills before the viewer’s eyes and it’s not
difficult to understand why Old Boy has had such a profound impact on contemporary