Revenge is a very classical and mythological story subject. So is incest.
Because I’d already dealt with the division of the Korean peninsula in “Joint Security Area (JSA)” and class conflict within South Korea in “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” I didn’t want to handle yet another timely social issue in my next work. I wanted to tell a story that was more foundational, primordial, and universal. And I wanted to go romanticist, rather than realistic. I wanted to tell a story about fate.
You began collaborating with screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung after “Oldboy,” and you have continued working together for 20 years. How has it felt to revisit “Oldboy,” which was made before that collaboration, and did Chung have any effect on the restoration and remaster?
After making “JSA,” “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” and “Oldboy” back-to-back, I began to repent, having only created stories that pushed women to the periphery. She was who I recruited as a result. As you are aware, the films and series I’ve made since are all centered around women. Even the works that she is not involved in. That’s how much of an influence she has had on me. However, because “Oldboy” is a pre-Chung work, she did not participate in the remastering.
One of the most enduring lines of dialogue in “Oldboy” comes from Lee Woo-jin, who says, “You can’t find the right answer if you ask the wrong questions.” This idea is important in many of your films, and so I wanted to close this interview by asking about the influence “Oldboy” has had on you as a filmmaker. How has it influenced the questions that you wish to ask through your filmmaking, or led you toward certain answers?
That’s correct — that line of dialogue is the key. If anyone were to regard “Oldboy” as holding some important place in the history of mystery stories, it’d be because of that line. This was not a mystery that could be solved by obsessing over the question, “Why was I imprisoned?” It’s only when you change the question to, “Why was I released when I could have been imprisoned for life?” that you can reach the thought, “Then, why was I released after exactly fifteen years?” and, “What takes fifteen years to achieve?” before ultimately coming to the conclusion that’s how long it takes for Mi-do, [played by Kang Hye-jung,] to become an adult.
Life is the same. How many enigmas stay unsolved because we are asking the wrong question? When the answer is hard to figure out, let us try changing the question and asking anew.
“Oldboy” returns to theaters in a new 4K restoration and remaster, via Neon, on August 16.