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Oldboy (2004) is a Korean dramatic action thriller, directed by Park Chan-wook. It is praised for its dramatic plot, Park Chan-wook's unconventional directing style and an impressive performance of the actors. The film raises multiple problems: revenge, incestuous relationships, tragic love, loneliness and obsession, which destroys personality. The diversity of the film’s musical score, and the way it helps the director to shift the film’s tone and to convey very different emotions will be analyzed in this paper.
In this film, its director Park Chan-wook continues his cooperation with composer Jo Yeong-wook, who created scores for most of Parks films. One of the most noticeable features of musical score in Oldboy is its diversity. The score in the film can be conditionally divided into several major directions, which resemble the genre shifts in the film. A number of melodies is used to underline intense urban thriller scenes, some create playful romantic mood for the love story, and others serve to intensify the dramatic scenes.
At the beginning of the film, the score is mostly a combination of orchestral and electronic music, used to create a sense of mystery and to foreshadow the upcoming tragic events. During the scene when Choi Min-sik's character Oh Dae-Su finds himself imprisoned for no apparent reason, the audience can hear a heartbreaking moving piano and violin led melody ("The Count of Monte Cristo"). The music gradually shows his descent into loneliness and despair. In the following scene, Oh Dae-Su puts himself together and begins to plan his escape and revenge. As his time of imprisonment flows, it is marked by an intense rhythmic montage melody - "Jailhouse rock". The melody effectively illustrates the flow of time and helps to illustrate the gradual evolution of Oh Dae-Su as he transforms from a miserable drunk into a no-nonsense anti-hero set on revenge. It is also a typical Hollywood action montage melody, which effectively serves to compress time. Motifs of flowing time and sins of the past are present throughout the whole film, and musical score is used throughout the picture to underline these themes.
As Oh Dae-Su finally leaves his prison, the brass-led melody "In a lonely place" shows how the world around the hero has changed and became a bigger prison. In the following infamous scene of Oh Dae-Su eating a living octopus and meeting Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) for the first time, the music is dramatically intense and tender at the same time. It serves not only to illustrate how obsessed with revenge Oh Dae-Su is, but also to present a character who shows compassion and affection towards him. In this scene, the ringtone musical motive crucial to the plot is also heard for the first time. This melody is an important plot element in the film's complex story. It will appear as a leitmotiv in further scenes of the film. This waltz motive is connected with the antagonist of the film - Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), and is a reflection of his tragic story, of horrific events in the past that caused the whole revenge story of the film.
Waltz is not surprisingly one of the omnipresent musical themes in Oldboy as it is traditionally connected with youth and school years. One of the film’s themes is the realization of dark consequences of the deeds that seemed unimportant to the careless youth. Thus, the use of the playful waltz to accompany this side of the story has an ironic colouring. In the closing scenes of the film, when the past events behind the whole tragedy are revealed, this motive (used in "Cries and whispers" and "Farewell my lovely") with its nostalgia and sadness bursts into an emotional climax. The end of the melody is abruptly interrupted by a gunshot as Lee Woo-jin kills himself, leaving the fate of Oh Dae-Su ambiguous.
The final musical piece in the film, "The last waltz", is a sad and compelling requiem for the tragic love story of Oh Dae-Su and Mi-do. Interestingly, the mood of the score in the scenes which involve Oh Dae-Su and Mi-do drastically differs emotionally from the ones of rest of the film. It sometimes makes the film almost like a romantic comedy, sometimes even midst gruesome violence and psychological terror. Music underlines the emotional patronage with which the director treats his main characters because with all the horrible acts that are committed in the film, its characters remain very humane.
While being a dynamic and violent action thriller on the surface, in its core, Oldboy is a sad love story and a tragedy of consequences and self-destructive obsessions. The score is adequately used in episodes of different mood. It arouses a feeling of threat and dynamics in action scenes, tenderness and sweetness in romantic scenes and imminent tragedy during the films climax. Music serves as a crucial element in the film’s dramatic structure. Without the emotional score, the film’s most powerful scenes would have lost most of their effectiveness.