As Gerald Mast states, "Details develop the film's emotional dynamics" (138), and these details are everywhere in the mise-en-scene. The most important aspect of the mise-en-scene, of course, is the acting. Actors are the most obvious props -- and Oh Dae-su provides ample instances of buffoonery that keeps Oldboy from sinking into the mire of its own violence. Despite all the gore, the film harbors a gentleness and affection, thanks to the acting from Oh Dae-su and Mido. Even the villain provides a handsome face and charming smile -- and an affable voice; even he is hard not to like, as he plays cat and mouse with Oh Dae-su.
The low-key lighting also helps provide the audience with the emotional connection necessary for the kind of mystery the film attempts to be. Scenes are shrouded in darkness -- such as when the heroes find themselves working in the Internet cafe -- or when Oh Dae-su finds himself taking vengeance on a gang crooks. The color and lighting change in the final scene of the film -- when snow white light fills the frame with a promise of purity and painlessness. Only the bright red coat of Mido offers any suggestion of life or warmth -- and its color is significant because it is the color of blood. It acts as though a remembrance of the sacrifice that took place on Oh Dae-su's part to keep a secret from destroy Mido. The significance of that coat appears to be reflected in Oh Dae-su's eyes, even if he does not know why his eyes are filled with pain.
Cinematography and Composition
Roger Ebert notes one scene from the film in particular as cinematically significant: "a virtuoso sequence in which Oh fights with several of his former jailers, his rage so great that he is scarcely slowed by the knife sticking in his back." The perspective that Park gives us is that of an audience on the sidelines of fight in a corridor. The low-key lighting lends a stark contrast and chiaroscuro to the scene -- and the steady-cam medium long single take shot lets the action play out like a violent and comedic dance. One witnesses the beatings and the exhaustion of the hero and the criminals, without cut or discontinuity. The composition is brilliant and rhythmic -- just like the musical score, which is never unwelcome or unconvincing.
Another scene of brilliant composition and cinematography (aside from the end scene), is (by way of contrast) the moment in which Oh Dae-su wakes in Mido's apartment and for the first time in fifteen years finds that he has the opportunity to make an advance on a woman. She warns him against doing so and he seems to take the warning -- but when the scene cuts to the dingy bathroom, whose white-tiled walls are lit from above, and Oh Dae-su bursts in to take advantage of Mido, she bears a giant butcher knife and just barely manages to beat him off with the butt of it. Toilet paper streams from the roll and her red sweater, again, stands out in stark contrast to the rest of the surroundings. Mido's color is always one of passion and blood -- a foreshadowing of what she is becoming for Oh Dae-su, who himself is transitioning from the drunk buffoon who opens the film to a man of substance and honor at the close of the film.
Similarly the final fight scene between Oh Dae-su and his nemesis takes place in a perfectly shiny and tidy apartment in a modern high rise, where fountains and pools of water are elegantly placed in the floor off-setting the monochromatic black-and-white color scheme of the enormous loft. The stark black-and-white setting is effectively used as the backdrop for the spilling of Oh Dae-su's blood as he cuts off his own tongue in order to appease the wrath of his persecutor.
And in the beginning of the film, the expert use of the crane and tracking shots that allow us to lose Oh Dae-su (he vanishes while we watch his friend speak on the telephone) sets the film up with an ethereal quality that is reminiscent of Orson Welles' film noir masterpiece Touch of Evil. As the camera crane lifts the viewer high up over the telephone booth and allows us to see the rain falling from the perspective of the sky, we see the puzzle opening up below us (literally) as Oh Dae-su's friend searches frantically for him and finds nothing but the angel wings that have been left on the side of the street.
Sound and Editing
That opening sequence is accompanied by the dramatic scherzo orchestration and the sound diagetic of the ticking clocks used to emphasize the passing of time during Oh Dae-su's captivity. Such diagetics are not very many in the film, but in a subtle way (as in the film's opening) they are used to convey a significant element of the plot -- that Oh Dae-su has disappeared and that he has disappeared for quite a while.
The film also uses sound in as a means of reinforcing the setting. For example, the music in the restaurant is different from the music in the apartment -- both settings are particular, and the sounds of classical musical that gently emerge from the background make us feel as though we were in a restaurant. On the other hand, the sounds we hear in the apartment with Oh Dae-su are those of the television. Television provides the only noise for the captive -- other than his own voice-over narrative. The only other sound that we here while in captivity with Oh Dae-su is the music that plays during the gassings, when Oh Dae-su is put to sleep, changed, and groomed. This music serves as a reminder of the gas -- so that when we hear it later in the film we know immediately what to expect.
Park uses Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" as a perfect means of building tension in anticipation of explosive action. The rhythm of the violins striking in unison in a kind of schizophrenic sound, sets the viewer on edge. The scene in which Of Dae-su is about to have his own teeth pulled out by a criminal is made all the more tense and thrilling by the use of the Vivaldi score.
Park does make use of non-diagetics the way another filmmaker, like Terrence Malick, for example, does. Sound and scenes are basically synchronous -- and the main sources for sound come from the effects and the musical composition. The Vivaldi adds a classical beauty to the film that the original soundtrack cannot match -- and it also brings a quality of operatic charm to the brutal sequences that cause us to flinch.
There are some silences in the film -- for example, the one take fight sequence in which Oh Dae-su demonstrates his the degree to which he is unstoppable is silently portrayed. All we hear are the grunts and groans and beatings of fist and wood against flesh and bone.
This sequence is filmed on a dolly which keeps the camera steady on the action, but other scenes are filmed with a handheld camera that lets us experience the action as though we were part of it. The dolly and the steady-cam help remove us from the action and allow the viewer to participate in it as though in a dream. But the energy that Park creates by use of the handheld is effective in drawing us in and making us feel very uncomfortable with what we fear is about to happen. For example, the scene already mentioned in which Oh Dae-su is about to have his teeth removed while the Vivaldi plays over the speakers is shot with a handheld from over the shoulder of the criminal with the pliers. It holds imperfectly on Oh Dae-su's face, and as the violins surge to life, Oh Dae-su's face is gripped and a vice inserted into his mouth. The drama of the music and of the violins matches perfectly the suspense and threat of pain that is expected. Oh Dae-su's open mouth and Mido's cringing (which is shot from below) fuels the sequence with impressive energy. Just as Oh Dae-su begins to laugh and reach up his sleeve for his weapon, a cell phone rings, cutting out the Vivaldi and relieving the scene of its tension. The music stops and silence replaces the atmospheric music.
But the scene is not yet over, even though it has been relieved of its musical accompaniment. The criminal beats Oh Dae-su over the back with a board, collapsing him to the floor. Even though the criminal has been called off by his boss, he still must release the energy that has been pent up within him -- and us. Therefore, we accept the brief…