Twenty years after it premiered in South Korea and 19 years after a Cannes Film Festival jury headed by Quentin Tarantino gave it the Grand Prix award, Park Chan-wook‘s “Oldboy” is returning to theaters on August 16 via a pristine new 4K restoration overseen by the director himself. A philosophically dense meditation on the purposes and limitations of vengeance filled with bravura filmmaking moments — the most famous of which is an unbroken shot detailing a brutal fight in which the film’s hero takes on an army of enemies with a hammer — the film’s greatness was recognized almost immediately by critics and audiences, and its reputation has only grown in the decades since.
Revisiting the film during the remastering process, Park is happy with it yet wishes he had known what a phenomenon the film would become when he made it. “Initially when we were designing Woo-jin’s penthouse, I had this idea of creating a very long single-lane pool,” Park told IndieWire. “When it’s reflected on the glass and he’s swimming, it almost looks like a white fish swimming in a long strip of water against the dark sky of night. I wanted to create a very surrealist image but couldn’t because of the budget. If I had known back then that the film was going to be a success, I would have invested more money and made the pool that I wanted.”
When Park watched the movie again to sign off on the restoration, it was only his third time seeing it since 2003 — and of those three times, he says he was only able to appreciate the movie as an audience member once. “The first time I watched it, at Cannes, I was with an actual audience and concerned with how they were reacting,” Park said, “so I wasn’t really focused on the film. The third time I watched it, for the remastering process, I had to focus on technical issues, so I couldn’t enjoy the movie itself that time either. The only time I was able to enjoy watching the film was 10 years ago, for the 10th anniversary. I watched it again with the cast and the heads of departments, and I found the character of Woo-jin to be a lot more interesting than I remembered. The actor who played him, Yoo Ji-tae, gave an amazing performance.”
Technical distractions aside, giving “Oldboy” another look on its 20th anniversary inspired Park to contemplate his audacity at a formative moment in his career. “When the original manga was offered to me by the producer, I didn’t like the ending,” Park said. “There was no story about incest and the motivation of the villain was totally different. I ended up signing the contract anyway, which looking back was a very reckless decision because I had no plan for how to change the ending. I’m glad I ended up coming up with a good idea on how to change it, but if I didn’t, it would’ve been a big problem. It’s a decision I wouldn’t make these days…how young I was back then!”