Park Chan-wook's Oldboy has grown older but no less lively than the day it was born. As the film celebrates its 20th anniversary this month, complete with a 4K restoration now playing in select theaters, it has a lot to be proud of.
The first Korean film to achieve widespread attention in the US, Oldboy almost won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, kickstarting a cycle that culminated more than a decade later in the victory of Park's longtime filmmaker friend Bong Joon Ho and his work Parasite at both Cannes and the Oscars. Oldboy is the story of a man named Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) who gets kidnapped and held in a hotel-like prison for years with no explanation. When he is finally released, he naturally seeks revenge against his captors. The truth he discovers is more horrifying than anything he could have imagined.
Oldboy has long achieved attention for its mind-blowing twist, which Park told EW last year remains his favorite among all his movies, as well as its outrageous visual moments, like when Oh Dae-su slurps down a living octopus. But in particular, the prolonged fight scene in which the protagonist battles a whole hallway full of henchmen with hammers has had a profound impact on Hollywood action scenes over the last two decades.
One of the first things that stands out about this close-corner fray is that it is performed in a single take, without cuts or edits. This conveys the sweaty desperation of battle in a way that few prior films achieved, and that subsequent movies have been chasing ever since.
"The realness of a fight lies in the moments between moves," stunt performer Chris Brewster, whose work in Marvel's 2015 Daredevil series was influenced by this hallway fight, tells EW. "If you're ever watching MMA or boxing, some of the best moments are when the fighters aren't doing anything, they're just kind of analyzing each other, and that's real. When you get into choreography, I think that a lot of people make the mistake of taking out any break in the action, and then you just basically get a really cool dance across the screen that hasn't told a story. In Oldboy, you feel every moment of what the character is feeling. That's why it is such a historic fight."
Park recently told Vanity Fair that he and his team shot 15 takes of the Oldboy fight, and "there isn't a take where everything is perfect." But conversely, that lack of perfection is exactly what makes the scene feel so real. "It is perfectly choreographed in a way that shows the imperfections of a real fight," Brewster says. "People slip. People go in for a move and realize it's not time yet, so they second-guess themselves. Somebody starts doing a move and then gets hit as they're doing the move, like it's getting intercepted. There's so many things that happen that aren't your traditional choreography of a dance step. You have half beats in there, you have interrupted beats, you have broken rhythm. I mean, they just do all of those things so well."
Brewster has been a stuntman for years, but he performed his most famous work on Daredevil, which originally premiered on Netflix and is now available to stream on Disney+. Three episodes in, as blind lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) is getting used to his role as a crime-fighting vigilante but hasn't yet acquired his trademark red suit, he fights a hallway full of bad guys.
"As much as I'd like to take credit, it was actually the director Phil Abraham and the showrunner, Steven De Knight, who both referenced the Oldboy fight," Brewster says of the Daredevil scene. "We wanted to pay tribute to it but also try to level it up, because otherwise it's just a bad copycat. You always want to give some element that wasn't in the original thing. So, we were like, obviously Oldboy is just about as master class as you can get, but because they were just two-dimensional with all the action, let's see if we can make the camerawork more three-dimensional."
Everett Collection (3) The iconic fight scene in 'Oldboy' influenced similar scenes in 'Daredevil' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.'
This scene put Daredevil on the map and is unabashedly indebted to Oldboy. Many other stunt teams and filmmakers, including director Jeff Rowe, who gave us this month's animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, would offer their own homages to Park's dynamic cinematic skirmish. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that Oldboy has so influenced superhero action, since Park himself adapted the film from the Japanese manga of the same name, written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi.
In fact, in a recent interview with GQ, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn called Oldboy one of his favorite comic-book movies. "If there's one scene that sticks out, it's the hallway fight," Gunn said. "That was a huge inspiration to me. You can see our own version of a hallway fight in Guardians 3."
Like Oldboy's battle, the climactic fight from Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 (now on Blu-ray and available to stream on Disney+) also takes place in a hallway, as the titular superheroes battle a bunch of minions of their enemy, the High Evolutionary. It's also meant to look like a single take, but this fight required a lot more technical ingenuity than the sweaty battles of Oldboy and Daredevil. "It's an extremely complicated shot that took a year to do in post," the film's VFX supervisor, Stephane Ceretti, tells EW. "It was shot over three days. It's just one long shot, but we shot 18 different parts and had to stitch them all together."
So, the Guardians 3 fight is not technically an unbroken single camera take, but the team was using the Oldboy scene as a guide for what they wanted their climax to look like. "It was very inspired by some Korean movies that James had seen," Ceretti says. "Oldboy was an inspiration, and this other movie called The Villainess. I was worried, when we were shooting, that certain transitions would not always work. To have the camera constantly moving and the actors bouncing around all the time, it was a little scary. But James was always saying, 'Look, in Oldboy and The Villainess, they do stuff that is crazy and no one cares because it works.'"
Since Oldboy, many action choreographers have found spaces in their story for a single-take scene of battle. But the reason the original still pops on the screen, after 20 years and legions of imitators, is its still-startling creativity that seamlessly comes out of the story.
"One of the key elements of creating a fight sequence that lasts in people's minds is originality," Brewster says. "When Oldboy choreographed that fight, they weren't copying something else. They were just like, 'We want to show the amount of energy it takes our hero to do this. We want to feel every moment of that fight.' So, the answer to how we actually do that was to do it in a single take."
Brewster continues, "The beauty of what we do is that it is a form of art. All art is inspired by other art, but the really creative, artistic pieces are the ones that will stand out for years to come."
Oldboy is available to see in theaters in all its original glory.
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