The Corridor(Hallway/Hammer) Scene: Oldboy
by Brian Robert Oliver
Oldboy is over the top, funny, melodramatic, aggressively violent, and its ending is so complicated that it needed to be carefully explained for over five minutes including flashbacks to earlier parts in the film. It’s like watching the ending of The Usual Suspects where Kaiser Soze does all those things but he also impregnates his sister and watches her jump to her death. It’s a soap opera with a Bond villain disguised as an action film. In other words, it’s awesome. So, thank you to AMC theaters for rereleasing it into its theaters for its 20th anniversary. However, I’m not here to talk of its awesomeness or even its triumphant return to theaters. I’m here to talk about the Corridor Scene(Hallway/Hammer Scene).
The Corridor Scene is easily one of my top ten cinematic moments from any movie. In fact, I have an even deeper appreciation from seeing in theaters for the first time. It’s pure spectacle by doing more with less. It’s chaotic but strangely poetic and beautiful. There is also something wholly familiar, and what makes the entire scene so incredible is that according to its director, it was not planned to be one long continuous take.
Refn and Park on Corridor Scene
If you are able to catch Oldboy in theaters, and you have to hurry, there is a conversation between Nicolas Winding Refn and Park Chan Wook where they speak of this very scene. When asked about the inspiration behind the one take corridor shot, Park Chan Wook surprisingly admits he did it out of laziness. At first, I didn’t believe him. The shot is too awesome and too iconic to have been the product of laziness. However, after contemplating how the scene begins, it actually makes a lot of sense.
Park tells Refn he didn’t feel like shooting all the coverage(extra shots/close up action) that was needed to keep his style intact. He realized he didn’t need any extra shots to complete the scene much to his and actor Choi Min Sik’s relief. This jives with what he says because the shot preceding the long take corridor shot feels like it’s leading up to a fast pace sequence. It’s a high angle medium shot tracking Dae su as he jumps into the fight. Then we cut right to a very similar shot, but much wider and slightly lower.
The Corridor Take
This, of course, is the Corridor shot. The pacing is markedly different and feels, perhaps, a little wonky, so this also jives with deciding to shoot it in one take at the last minute. The difference in pacing but similar angle makes me think it was leading up to a close up on Dae su’s punch, not a wide shot. Since Park Chan Wook also explains he always directs off his storyboard, the wonky transfer from shot to shot feels pretty authentic.
Okay, so this beautifully photographed, perfectly staged scene was done on a whim but why is it so damn good then? First, I think it has to be said that this is not a regular action revenge flick. Action movies are, by design, rather simple stories because they have to be. Much time is dedicated to action sequences, and as fun as these sequences are to watch, they rarely propel the story forward. They’re like musicals and time has to be given in order to make room for musical sequences. However, Oldboy is not a simple story. There is a lot of story. Maybe too much story, and the pacing, editing, and shot selection reflect this notion. The pace is deliberate once Oh Dae su bursts out of the suitcase.
The Perfect Shot
The slow and tense pacing of the few shots leading up to the long corridor shot suggests we are in for a tight, wildly shot fight sequence, but that’s not what happens. Instead we are pulled back into a two dimensional, objectively witnessed ballet. The wide, continuous shot slows the pacing down and for the first time calls attention to itself as a film. It’s a spectacle. It’s a mess of flying hammers, fists and sticks, yet at the same time, beautiful. The bodies bunch together like ocean waves during a storm. It’s stylistically different from what we have seen so far, but fits perfectly and stands out as one of my favorite shots in any film. Getting to see it in a theater was a real treat.
Generation X and Kung-Fu Master
Also, there is something extremely familiar about the way this scene is shot. When Oldboy was released in the states, it screened primarily for generation X. Gen X was an arcade generation and there was one particular game extremely influential within a subset of this generation. The game was called “Kung-Fu Master” and was an 8 bit, two dimensional, side to side fighter game within a corridor. The game was an ode to early 80’s Hong Kong actions films as well as Bruce Lee’s Game of Death. Now, I have no idea if this was Park Chan Wook’s intention to draw a parallel to this video game, and it probably wasn’t, but it makes sense either way.
A theme that is not often brought up when speaking of Oldboy is manipulation. Though he doesn’t think to ask why, Dae su is being controlled by Woo-Jin. Woo-jin imprisons Dae su for 15 years and then orchestrates a plot for Dae su to fall in love and have sex with his own daughter. Dae su is getting played like a video game. So when we see Dae su jump into an ocean of bodies in the corridor scene, it works as a metaphor for how he is being controlled.
Catch it at AMC
If you are in a city that is showing Oldboy then please, do yourself a favor and watch this insanely enjoyable classic! Sure, it’s still completely ridiculous and seriously convoluted, but that’s why you should go see it. See it for the teeth pulling. See it for revenge of being imprisoned for 15 years. And see it for one of the greatest shots in cinema history while scratching your head as to how it was made on a whim.