“Can fifteen years of imaginary training really be put to use?”
A lot of times people tell you that a movie is “so messed up” that it will “blow your mind” and it mostly turns out to be either mindless garbage (e.g., Riki-O) or tiring “provocative” pap (e.g., pretty much every Tarantino-wannabe in the wake of Pulp Fiction). Oldboy, the original 2003 cult film out of South Korea, is one of the few films that really lives up to that moniker.
A tale about the depths of revenge and obsession, Oldboy is a thriller but not a true action movie; nevertheless, one of its most talked-about (and believe you me, there is a LOT to talk about when it comes to Oldboy) scenes is an extended fist fight around the middle. Even without hearing the hype, when you first see the movie and come across this sequence, you know instinctively you’ve witnessed the birth of a new legend, and that director Park Chan-wook has made something indelible and unique. And he did it all in a single, continuous take.
Oldboy: The Hallway Fight
- Oh Dae-su, our protagonist. A philandering, alcoholic businessman whose life took an abrupt turn when, without warning or explanation, he was kidnapped and imprisoned. For fifteen years Dae-su was locked in a hotel-like room with no contact with the outside world besides the TV, and eating the same food shoved under his door every day. Trapped for a decade and a half, Dae-su goes more than a little crazy, and hardens his body & mind into an instrument of vengeance against his tormentors. Then, with just as little warning, he’s set free. Played by Choi Min-sik.
- Armed with: An iconic hammer. Not like a medieval war hammer or something, just a simple household tool.
- Thugs, about a dozen or so. Employed by the man who runs the place where Dae-su was locked up. They’re mean but unpolished, and in various degrees of fighting trim.
- Armed with: Several have simple wooden boards or tubes as crude weapons.
The Setup: After a little while on the outside, Oh Dae-su has tracked down the place where he was locked up, but the man who runs the place is not the man who ordered the imprisonment, nor does he work directly for him. Apparently this kind of thing happens enough in Korea to warrant such a dedicated third party’s existence. After some decidedly physical interrogation of the business owner, Dae-su learns everything he can from him, and holds him at knife-point as he approaches a hallway full of thugs who block his way out.
He asks the goons which of them have the same blood type as their boss, and when he gets a volunteer, tells him to take the tortured man to the hospital so he’ll live. Then, without wasting a moment, our “hero” charges into battle. Notably, he drops the knife he’d been holding.
This is significant, because, along with his helping to save the life of the man he’d just brutalized, it shows that for all his pent-up aggression looking for an outlet, Oh Dae-su isn’t looking to kill, at least not yet. He’s looking to hurt.
It’s pretty messed up.
The Fight: Dae-su’s fighting is both canny and frantically unfocused, paradoxical as that might sound. He does what he can to keep moving and changing targets, not staying in one place long enough. Still, it’s not long before he finds himself surrounded by the goons rather than having them all to one side, and he tries to correct that by seizing one around the neck as a temporary hostage, keeping the others at bay.
He can’t keep that up for long, of course, and quickly loses control of the situation. He takes a few hits, loses his hammer, and goes down, getting repeatedly kicked & stomped by the mob. Surprising the group with his ferocity, Dae-su gets back on his feet and tackles the goon nearest to him, shoving him back into the crowd.
But numbers are numbers, and the underdog gets put down again, this time for even longer and with far more blows. When one thug stabs Dae-su square in the back with his own dropped knife, everyone seems to think it’s over, as they all back off while the intruder stays doubled over in pain for many long seconds.
Incredibly, Dae-su rises again and goes back on the offensive; this is the sort of thing that can happen when you spend fifteen years building up your Beast Mode. This time he manages to remain on the opposite side of the hallway and take his foes on in a more manageable way– largely because they seem, and not without good reason, afraid of this unpredictable wild man. The gang’s collective body language conveys a sort of “I don’t wanna be next, YOU be next!” feel, as they stay clustered at a safe distance and only close in haltingly.
Many are still armed with wooden boards, but few can really put them to good use as Dae-su is able to avoid them (one snaps against the wall in a wild swing) or break them with his elbow like a badass. Between the protagonist’s intimidating wildness and their own exhaustion & injuries, the gang gets even sloppier, missing easy blows and even just falling to the ground of their own accord. One of them picks up Dae-su’s hammer and tries to use it, but Dae-su is quicker and puts him down with a series of punches.
The last man takes several blows to go down, but when he does, no one gets back up again. Dae-su’s the last man standing in a corridor full of wounded, tired, terrified thugs. With, incidentally, a knife still stuck in his back.
Triumphant, Dae-su retrieves his hammer and heads for the elevator. He doesn’t even react when a cut in his head finally starts gushing blood. After a few seconds, he breaks out in a deranged smile, and since we can’t see what he sees, we assume it’s just pure self-satisfaction, pride in what he’s done.
But the next cut reveals that it’s even creepier: the elevator has just opened to reveal another handful of glaring goons. Dae-su’s not happy because he survived a gruesome ordeal, he’s happy because it isn’t over yet.
Moments later we see the elevator open up on the ground level, and Dae-su exits amidst a cluster of slumped over enemies. Of course.
This is a rare cinematic feat where a sequence dives so hard into the mundane that it comes out the other side as Epic. This isn’t a titanic clash between a champion martial artist and a group of skilled opponents; it’s a simple brawl between hard men. The weapons are crude and ordinary. Given that it’s all in one take, there’s very little room for cinematic trickery to make the combat and the combatants seem more impressive than they are. Even the music is understated, a haunting mixture of sadness & excitement. There’s even neat little touches, like the slightly chubby, shirtless thug who takes a hammer to the thigh early on and spends the rest of the battle limping.
Oldboy’s signature fight seemingly breaks so many rules of cinematic fighting, and while rubbing your face in gritty realism it somehow makes you believe the impossible. Quite the achievement indeed.
“Apparently, it can.”
Coming Attractions: FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!