The commercial and critical success of Oldboy at Cannes presented an opportunity for the film to become a global hit. The film was unique because it achieved commercial success while being inherently a cult movie. This made Park Chan-wook a transnational auteur as his vision and style in the movie became symbolic of South Korean cinema as a whole, primarily due to the numerous opportunities to commercialize a phenomenon that was becoming more common in the national film industry.
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However, the international fame initiated a complicated process of releasing Oldboy to a much different audience in the West than the film was initially intended. “This temporal displacement can contribute towards the construction of varied local critical response, which build up specific interpretative paradigms designed to elucidate a director’s body of work and cinematic predilections” (Lee, 2008, p. 211). The numerous reviews set certain expectations that the audience had towards Chan-wook’s work as an auteur director. People went to see the film for the sensational qualities characterized by his style and thematic elements of the plot.
Oldboy was appealing to the Western audience for being a fresh introduction in the thriller-horror genre that had not seen similarly impactful films from local filmmakers. There was a sense of exotic mystery in the foreign culture but felt familiar with the use of European film techniques. The critical success of Oldboy gave marketers an opportunity to commercialize the film by centering on its extremes. The focus on violence, revenge, and horror elements became the defining focus of the marketing campaign.
However, the popularity of the film created a cultural perception of South Korean cinema, and by extension, its society. “It is perhaps ‘natural for viewers to want to draw conclusions regarding what the films they consume may have to tell them about the society that produced them’” (Shin, 2009, p.97). Artistic decisions made by Chan-wook were exploited for attention and formed stereotypical labels about Asian cinema, ironically dominated by peaceful melodramas. It became a defining element of contemporary Korean cinema which had a number of emerging auteur directors.
Oldboy encompassed the turbulent time in South Korean society in its challenging path as a democracy at the end of the 20th century. There was still a sense of uncertainty and fear which reflected in the suspense that holds the viewer on edge. There are repeated themes of violence as a result of socio-economic inequality, patriarchy, and nationalism. The central plot device of vengeance is representative of South Korean social attitudes, which desired retribution for the economic crisis that so negatively impacted the country and the constant state of geopolitical crisis with North Korea.
Despite its commercialization as a purely violent film, it explores the depth of human emotion where the protagonist attempts to establish justice in a world which betrayed and mistreated him. Oldboy explores this moral predicament and presents the viewer with the conclusion that although revenge may have short-term satisfaction, it is an inherently destructive force and cannot be used to rebuild the structure of society.
Lee, N. (2008). Salute to Mr. Vengeance!: The making of a transnational auteur Park Chan-wook. In L. Hunt & W. Leung (Eds.), East Asian cinemas: Exploring transnational connections on film (pp. 203-219). London, UK: Tauris.
Shin, C. (2009). The art of branding: Tartan ‘Asia extreme’ films. In J. Choi & M. Wada-Marciano (Eds.), Horror to the extreme: Changing boundaries in Asian cinema (pp. 85-100). Frankfurt, Germany: Springer.