Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
The horrifying 2003 South Korean film shocked viewers, but scholars say the violence is actually a critique of global capitalism.
This month, CityLab will be rounding up essential scary movies about cities—films that speak to the anxieties of urban life, showcase urban settings to terrifying effect, or forever change the way you see the cities they depict.
Imagine you are abducted and held prisoner in a small room for years, with only a television for company. You’re kept alive through a diet of pot stickers, and receive medical intervention only when you try to kill yourself, for you are in despair, having no idea why you are there or for how long you will stay. When you are finally freed after 15 years, you are desperate to find your captor, discover why you were held, and exact bloody revenge. Such is the chilling plot of Oldboy, the 2003 South Korean film directed by Park Chan-wook and set in the capital of Seoul.
The freed prisoner, the formerly pudgy salaryman Oh Dae-su, has transformed himself into a sinewy fighter through years of shadowboxing in his room. He goes on a violent spree through the underbelly of the city in his quest for vengeance. Before we reach one of the final scenes—a disturbing showdown with Lee Woo-jin, the mastermind behind the imprisonment—we have watched Dae-su eat a live octopus, extract 15 teeth (one for each year of captivity) from one of Woo-jin’s henchmen, and skillfully kill a myriad of thugs with a hammer.
Oldboy is an incredible piece of cinematic storytelling, which helped garner it critical success and win the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. But it also alarmed the hell out of people. “It’s a movie that you feel you’re not so much watching on screen as having beamed directly into your skull from some malign, alien planet of horror,” wrote Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian.
Some Western reviewers sought to understand the violence by (offensively) attributing it to Asian culture. Rex Reed wrote in the Observer that the film is as “pointless as it is shocking. What else can you expect from a nation weaned on kimchi, a mixture of raw garlic and cabbage buried underground until it rots?”
A number of scholars who took a deeper look at the film argued that its violent plot and depiction of Seoul during the period of Dae-su’s imprisonment, 1988-2003, is a critique of the social inequality wrought by South Korea’s economic crisis. The period saw the country go, hat in hand, to international lenders for a bailout.
South Korea’s 1997 deal with the IMF features prominently in the movie, in a key television montage that shows the years passing as Dae-su sits in front of the flickering screen. The deal restructured the South Korean economy so that export-oriented global corporations—and those at their helm—saw great financial gains. But the wealth didn’t trickle down, and the economy didn’t generate enough new jobs. The result: stark income inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class.
The Seoul in Oldboy depicts this world of haves and have nots. Woo-jin, a captain of industry who has been educated in America, capitalism’s mecca, wears impeccable designer suits that make the cheap, ill-fitting businesswear that Dae-su sports before his abduction pitiable.
The city itself is portrayed as one of extreme contrasts, of dank high-rises with poorly lit, filthy hallways juxtaposed with gleaming corporate buildings and airy penthouses, such as the one in which Woo-jin lives. That Seoul is the one made famous by rapper Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which poked fun at the vacuousness of the city’s trappings of conspicuous consumption and those who aspire to them.
After Dae-su is released, Woo-jin asks him several times, “How do you find your life in the ‘wider prison?’” In the climactic face-off, it becomes clear that Woo-jin has orchestrated Dae-su’s post-captivity quest for vengeance to fulfill his own plan to achieve definitive retribution. Though Dae-su thinks he has been getting the upper hand, he is ultimately at Woo-jin’s mercy.
“The narrative twist is that [the middle class salaryman], by acquiring violent masculinity, believes he is winning against an elite, but in the end it is the upper class who was winning the entire time,” the Vanderbilt University film professor Se Young Kim tells CityLab. “The film’s deep pessimism is found in the notion that agency—even violent agency—cannot change the class system.”