Twenty Years Later, 'Oldboy' Is Still as Stylish as Ever

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy will forever be one of those films where you’ll always remember your first time seeing it—I watched it with my film bro college boyfriend at his apartment and was both horrified and utterly mesmerized. That sentiment holds up watching the film 20 years later, with a restored and remastered version released by indie film distributor Neon this week.

The film follows the tragic tale of local drunk Dae-su Oh (Choi Min-sik) who is captured and then imprisoned in a cell for 15 years without knowing the hows or whys of his captivity, and his subsequent quest for revenge upon his mysterious release. Along the way, he falls in love with a young sushi chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong), who complicates his journey. Upon its initial release, Oldboy received much critical acclaim, winning the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and putting Chan-wook on the auteur path, which led to subsequent, similarly celebrated films like 2016’s The Handmaiden and last year’s Decision to Leave. Oldboy has been on numerous best films of all time lists, had both unauthorized (a Hindi version) and authorized (Spike Lee’s 2013 American version) adaptations, and was the second film in Chan-wook’s now infamous Vengeance trilogy.

It still manages to shock even though many of its surprises at the time—especially that nauseating twist ending—have become pop culture staples. But in addition to Chan-wook’s phenomenal direction, Min-sik’s powerhouse performance, and that thrilling action choreography, Oldboy’s enduring legacy also lies in its costuming. Dae-su’s pinstripe vengeance suit is oh-so-chic, villain Woo-jin Lee (Yoo Ji-tae) wears a bucket hat rather enviably, and Mi-do is swathed in brightly colored, patterned mesh shirts which don’t look terribly unlike what you see out in Brooklyn on a Friday night. (Hers are better).

Jo Sang-gyeong, the woman behind the timeless fits of Oldboy, has now worked with Chan-wook on many of his other films, done over 50 projects in her own storied career including Netflix’s 2021 smash hit Squid Game, and has been nominated for and won many awards. Sang-gyeong spoke to GQ about starting her costuming career with Oldboy, creating a timeless style, and her longtime collaboration with Park Chan-wook.

GQ: Oldboy was one of the first films you costumed for—what is it like looking back at what a classic it has become and being a part of that?

Jo Sang-gyeong: Thinking back on that time, personally speaking, it was when I had just had my baby and was wondering whether I should quit my job and begin focusing on childcare. So, when the job offer came in, I accepted it immediately. If I hadn’t done Oldboy at the time, I would be living a very different life today. It was an opportunity for me to learn many elements about filmmaking that I had not known before, so I’m very grateful.

How did you go about costuming Dae-su Oh (Min-sik) from his initial introduction as a drunk loser to a trapped victim and then into a vengeful killer?

This was back when I wasn’t trained in film, so I analyzed the script as I’d analyze a play. I thought about the mise-en-scène of the whole thing from the opening scene fifteen years ago all the way to the ending. The script was very clear on what it wanted to be. I asked Director Park questions to learn his intentions and worked out the entire concept as if I were piecing together a puzzle. For instance, when Dae-su Oh is released, the script specifically mentioned the brand Gucci. I asked Director Park if it had to be Gucci, and he answered that it just has to be a luxury brand that people know of because Woo-jin gave it to Dae-su. When we actually filmed it, we used the brand Dupont, which we used to fill up Woo-jin’s closet. When we were at Cannes, Dupont really loved that.

I worked around Dae-su Oh and his relationships with other characters, landing on the idea for a red shirt for the ending, but because there was a flight delay when we filmed abroad, we could not get the planned costume in time. Instead, we had to use a raincoat that we found in New Zealand. This was actually the first set experience that taught me that film productions sometimes don’t go as planned. That also reminds me that the costume for when Dae-su was locked up used to have a blue and beige khaki tone, but once I saw the wall tone on set, it felt too tone-on-tone, so I dyed the costume red.

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