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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Oldboy (2003) and Involuntary Crimes of Love

By  · Published on August 27th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by presenting a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t inexplicably kidnap and lock us in a hotel room for fifteen years.

Part 19 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Involuntary Crimes of Love” with Oldboy.

The Synopsis

Upon passing out in the middle of the street after calling his young daughter to wish her a happy birthday Dae-Su Oh awakens alone in what appears to be a hotel room with no outside view, locked doors and a small opening at the bottom of the front where someone occasionally comes to leave him food. Essentially, he’s been imprisoned for reasons unknown to him and remains locked away for fifteen years. Exactly on the anniversary of his fifteen-year non-sentence he is just as mysteriously set free. Dae-Su then proceeds a personal investigation to identify the person responsible for taking the last fifteen years of his life and find out why.

The Situation

“Involuntary Crimes of Love” – This situation can involve a very broad set of circumstances ranging from unknowingly having an affair with one’s relative to unknowingly having an adulterous affair with someone one didn’t know was married.

Oldboy, for as shocking as the reveal of the culprit and the revenge plot itself turns out to be, the situation as it applies to the text is specifically identified in the 36 Dramatic Situations as Discovery that One has Married One’s Sister as Villainously Planned by a Third Party. Technically, it isn’t marriage, nor is it one’s sister, but it’s close enough. I don’t even think Dae-Su Oh had a sister, so therefore the villain couldn’t even incorporate that into his plot if he wanted to. I mean, you wouldn’t want to follow the situation *exactly*, that wouldn’t be very original villainous activity.

The Movie

Chan-wook Park was a relatively unknown name to world cinema until this film made its rounds in 2003 where it made a huge splash at Cannes. It was Park’s second entry into his planned, and now completed, Revenge Trilogy and this was the film that ingrained Park’s name into the conscious of viewers with its audacious material of combining blunt, unfettered violence with the sharpest of dark humor on par with Spain’s Pedro Almodovar.

A great deal of the film’s refreshing appeal aside from some of the well-staged action sequences (the fight in the hallway of the prison is captured brilliantly) and one of the most impressive performances that isn’t recognized enough from lead actor Min-sik Choi are the well-conceived details of the revenge plot in that it truly is impossible to figure out the responsible party, or the reason for the imprisonment as neither are ever mentioned or hinted at during any point of the run-time preceding the climax. Like Dae-Su Oh we really have no idea who or why and there’s little chance you’ll conclude correctly for either before the character does, which is how a mystery plays out best.

Because we’ve become accustomed to actively put the pieces of the mystery together as a story progresses so that we can feel a sense of accomplishment from our seat it’s interesting to see a filmmaker take a revenge story and omit clues and hints so that focus and attention is placed on the content and visuals while still keeping us engaged and intrigued to discover the details of the situation. Oldboy is a masterpiece of story structure, with a powerhouse performance from the lead and some ingenious camerawork to make for a picture as unforgettable as the events experienced by Dae-Su. Even though he forgets them.

Bonus Examples: Excalibur, Up in the Air

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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