Certain scenes earn a historical reputation that break free from the film which once contained them. The American History X kerbstomp. The ear-lop from Reservoir Dogs. These are the kinds of scenes that crop up endlessly, without context, on Youtube. The scenes you can’t help but wait for, when you finally get round to watching the film.
Oldboy has two of these scenes. The first is probably the more (in)famous: Dae-su eating a still-alive squid. This was done without effects, just a man, eating a real squirming octopod. In its context in the film, however, it wasn’t a defining moment. Even in terms of purely visceral shock value, it has a superior: the tooth-pulling torture which precedes our second sequence.
That second scene is, of course, the hammer fight. When you mention the film to people, they’ll nod and go ahh, yes, the hammer fight, right? and give you a knowing nod.
I’m not sure the reason I lay tribute at its feet here is completely aligned with the rest of the world; but then, what on this site ever is?
It isn’t that the scene is flashily shot – in fact, it’s quite plain – or impressively choreographed – it looks effortless, breezing past on screen. It isn’t even the impressive technical work on show: though impressive it is, consisting of one long seamless shot, a shot which escapes the confines of the film and passes into the urban myth of knowing nods.
What makes this scene special, for me, is the setting: a single underground corridor, limited in at the top and bottom. Limited by black. Sound familiar?
Oldboy is fighting with the language of cinema. By setting those confines – the black bars which seal every film into letterbox format – as a geographical feature of the scene, it sets the fight within the screen. Depending on your tendencies, it will either make the limitations disappear or draw the eye to them. It’s a reminder of artifice, or a removal. Nevertheless…
The single shot breaks from the norm of the Big Fight Scene: the traditional quick, close-up cuts back and forth, working like a particularly violent conversation. By keeping one shot, it allows the scene to flow as you read it, as the action – that simplest of clauses in cinema – moves, two dimensionally. The camera stays along a single horizontal plane: nothing exists above or below the action as we watch it. Like a 2D Mario game, like a comic, like reading a book, it moves unmistakably from left to right.
And when it reveals a dozen men in a lift, to be dispatched, it is natural. You’ve reached the end of the sentence; of course it ends with a punchline. Nothing in the film – even its great joke, at the climax – matches it.