The Marketing of Oldboy: A Recipe for British Bulgogi

In this analysis we will examine the UK reception and image of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (2003), focusing on the subtext of the iconic images used by Palisades Tartan in their press kit for the film. Moreover, we will also look at how the most popular of these images are branded into merchandising. Together this data will paint a picture of the image and ‘flag’ Park’s work was imported under. In conclusion, we will see how the film serves as a ‘flagship’ for generic Asia Extreme branding and South Korean film in the UK.

ICONIC IMAGERY AND SUGGESTED VIOLENCE

IMAGE FROM PRESS KIT. MIN-SIK CHOI © TARTAN FILMS

Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) has imprinted “grand, gritty, [and] indelible” (Zacharek) images in the minds of audiences since its theatrical release in the UK in 2004.  This imagery has become almost iconic due to its repetitious use by critics and fans, but more importantly by its distributor Palisades Tartan.  The best example of this is the film still of Dae-su Oh (played by Min-sik Choi) holding a hammer menacingly over his head, ready to strike an onlooker (image above).  This key image can be found all over the Internet and more significantly in many of Tartan’s promotional and retail imagery, appearing in Oldboy‘s trailer (Tartan) and in other promotional materials, including posters, postcards, and DVD packaging.  A small hammer shaped bottle opener is even coupled with a postcard of the image in the Vengeance Trilogy (Chan-Wook Park, 2010) box set (Deluxe).  Another still taken from the hammer scene can also be found in the box set’s trailer  (Trailer) and on the DVD menu for the Oldboy disk.  On the UK DVD cover we even see a cropped version of the hammer still, while on the inside we find the unaltered image on the disk and booklet (Image).  The repetitive use of this image is no accident, as its origin can be traced to Tartan’s press kit for Oldboy in the form of a print quality JPEG (Berlin).   There are six high resolution film stills in Tartan’s press kit for Oldboy, but none appear with the frequency in UK products as the “iconic image of the actor’s hallway fight from ‘Oldboy’ ” (Campbell).  The hammer image is most popular, hence why it should be viewed as an iconic image for the film.  However, most of them do share an important element between them, the subtext of violence.

LEFT: FILM FESTIVAL POSTER (UK). MIDDLE: POSTCARD FROM DELUXE BOXSET. RIGHT: DVD COVER (UK) ©TARTAN FILMS

Most of the promotional images point at the theme of violent behavior through the use of ‘suggested violence’ as a subtext.  The word suggested is used because the stills only show us a snapshot of the sequences in the film they are taken from.  These stills can only illustrate the violence we already know from the film or allude to what we might experience as a future viewer.  The image of Choi with a blood soaked gag in his mouth and gun pointed at his head by Woo-jin (played by Ji-tae Yu) is a great example of suggested violence, as is the still of a blood soaked Yu pressing a gun to his own temple.

LEFT: JI-TAE YU AND MIN-SIK CHOI. RIGHT: JI-TAE YU
IMAGES FROM PRESS KIT © TARTAN FILMS 2005

In the stills we see a bleeding man who is gagged and is maybe about to be killed (above left) and a man who is getting ready to commit suicide, or already has (above right).  These images reproduce some of the inescapable violence in Oldboy and in the Vengeance Trilogy as a whole, but they do not show us the whole story.  As we will see in the remaining stills, non-violent dramatic content is hardly marketed in the press kit.  The graphic content in the images showcase the deliberate marketing of key images that Tartan believes will carry the film.  For example, the image of violence is important for the film’s marketing because it effects how well it will fit into Tartan’s Asia Extreme branding, therefore effecting how it will perform as part of its catalogue, but let us return to this later.  As we will see throughout this analysis, violence is very clearly suggested in the promotional stills.   From a blood covered Yu or Choi (above) to a man held by his tie over the side of a building (bellow),  these suggestive images point heavily to a large body of graphic content in the film. Before we look at if it is warranted in defining an image, let us look at how it is used in packaging.

‘WELL MADE’ VIOLENCE AND AMBIGUITY

MIN-SIK CHOI (RIGHT). IMAGE FROM PRESS KIT © TARTAN FILMS 2005
A MAN BEING DROPPED FROM A BUILDING OR SAVED?

Promotional images such as the hammer still function as ‘eye candy,’ binding merchandise to the violent and dramatic subtexts of the press kit.  This eye candy is used to sell DVD’s, memorabilia, and tickets at the box office; therefore it is the forefront of the image for consumers.  Debi Berlin, director of theatrical distribution and publicity at Tartan, had this to say about key art and images:  “Everything that we design is sort of intentional to get sales and attention… even if just on the video shelves you know.  Like, wow this looks really interesting, then they turn it over and maybe you got them” (Flynn).  Rick Stenlo, the Director of Marketing for Tartan agrees and elaborates on the Asia Extreme line in saying that, “if you have a good cover… [it] makes more of a difference than you would like… you wish it was more about the movie” (Flynn).  If we look specifically at the DVD case, it shows the cropped and heavily darkened hammer still, with Yu standing menacingly behind Choi against a black background.  This gloomy cropped or focused image sets a dramatic tone, but in this case violence is foregrounded for those unfamiliar with the iconic fight scene it is taken from.  However, when combined with the image from the hammer fight scene on the back the marketed picture changes to a violent one, tying the packaging neatly into the iconic press shot.  However, the DVD case goes beyond subtext in its promoted image.

© TARTAN FILMS (UK DVD CASE)

Oldboy‘s image is not just one of violence from Tartan; it is complex in its marketed structure, asking to be received as various genres from its packaging, as well as a film of ‘high quality’ through its various festival awards and authorship from Park Chan-Wook.  In the case of the DVD packaging and theatrical posters, three genres are visible: mystery, action, and thriller.  Its image as an action-thriller can be seen in the blurb from The Times on the back that reads:  ” ‘A tense, no holds barred, knuckle-gnawing roller coaster ride… truly astonishing’ ” (Oldboy).  The synopsis on the back tells us about a man who has been “kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years… his wife brutally murdered… must figure out why he was imprisoned, he only has five days to unravel the mystery” (Oldboy), if he does not the girl helping him will die and if he does, the kidnapper will take his own life instead.  This synopsis falls well into the genre of mystery-thriller, further blending genre lines.  The quality film endorsement comes from the top back of the case: the Grand Pris du Jury atCannes in 2004.  This award attests to the quality of the film, as Cannes “is the largest and most famous film festival in the world — in size and length” (Ebert 56).  Winning second prize adds to the overall image of quality due to the festival’s prestige, therefore adding to its international marketability.  The UK theatrical poster almost mirrors every element of the DVD cover, with two noteworthy exceptions.  It displays Mi-Do (played by Hye-jeong Kang) on the left side and shows that Oldboy won six awardsat the Grand Bell Film Festival in South Korea.

These awards add to the image of the film being ‘high quality’ or well made[1], whereas Kang’s appearance on the poster points at sexuality and drama, adding to its marketability to demographics outside violent movie consumers, a core audience of males aged 18-34 (Hamilton 59).


[1]Well made is a term coined in South Korea to promote ‘quality films’ nationally.  For more see: (Mitsuyo 13)

LEFT: UK OLDBOY POSTER. RIGHT: HYE-JEONG KANG (LEFT), MIN-SIK CHOI (RIGHT)
IMAGES © TARTAN FILMS

Violence is the number one subtext that appears throughout the press kit images; therefore they are the first thing the public sees through the distributor’s marketing and film critics and reviewers alike.  This graphic content is followed only by the offering of sexual undertones, represented by the film still of Choi embracing a teary eyed Kang.  This still ‘plugs’ the sexuality that runs throughout the film in the incestuous relationship of their characters, but for someone who has not seen the film, the picture can also be read as a moment of drama.  However, sexual content is often marketed by Asia Extreme, not unlike violence, “primal sexuality and cruelty in Oldboy are recurring tropes, a convention typical of art-house cinema—especially of Asia Extreme cinema” (Choi 177).  This idea of marketing ‘tropes’ can assist in “incorporating the art-house audiences (or world cinema patrons) to its niche” (Shin 1), further blending genre, violence, and sexuality.  This notion of genre blending is important due to the fact that many have argued “that art cinema itself is a genre, with its own distinct conventions and modes of address” (Grant).  Therefore in part, the notions of sex and violence have been blended into the film’s image.  This blurring of content and genre is a large part of Tartan’s branding, as we will examine later.  Though sexuality is present in the one image of Kang and Choi, violence can be found in four of the six images, making it the most important element to focus on.

MIN-SIK CHOI © TARTAN FILMS 2005

Though Oldboy received mixed reviews, the critics tend to agree on its graphic content, that being one “imbued with excessive violence and gory images” (Choi 164).  One reviewer posits that Oldboy even “opens a whole new sicko frontier of exotic horror” and that it “is cinema that holds an edge of cold steel against your throat” (Bradshaw).  Another member of the press states:  “You’ll cringe at the lead character devouring a live octopus and shield your eyes from the tooth-pulling and other epic displays of ultraviolence (Ross).  In another review the film is defined as a “guignol of violence and perversion in which teeth are extracted, a tongue is severed, and sex is incestuous” (Schwarzbaum).  In yet another: “Oldboy is a turbo-charged explosion of narrative, a super-stylised slice of ultra-violence that grabs you from its opening frame and never lets go” (Said).  Though many scenes are graphic in nature as the reviewers posit, there are a few scenes where violence is only depicted, not unlike the promotional stills.  The finest example of this is in the “scene involving the unwilling extraction of healthy teeth from a character, we just see the beginning of the act and its consequence” (Canau).  However, the suggested and non-depicted graphic content of “the super-stylised violence of ‘Oldboy’ wowed the Cannes jury,” and brought “overdue recognition for Korean cinema” (Said).

PRODUCT BRANDING AND RECEPTION

LEFT: IMAGE OF CHOI FROM PRESS KIT. RIGHT: IMAGE FROM JAN ŠVANKMAJER’S ALICE (1988)
BOTH STYLIZED MEDIUM SHOTS RICH IN COLOR AND TONE — CONCENTRATION ON ART-HOUSE MARKET?

The above image of Choi does not represent sexuality or violence; however the still’s highly stylized color scheme and composition is reminiscent of the art-house genre.  Regardless, both stills above well illustrate the next topic: trying to fit Oldboy into a ‘cubbyhole’ of ambiguity through branding for a specific yet generic market.  Tartan’s Asia Extreme label was created in 2001 by Tartan founder Hamish McAlpine to distribute Oldboy and various other East Asian films in the UK.  Since its creation Asia Extreme “has become a broad term for mind-bending genre pics from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong” (Mottesheard).  Moreover, Asia Extreme has become synonymous with ‘in your face’ and shocking Asian films, those “that evoke fright, terror and abjection from viewers” (Shin 1).  On the topic of Asia Extreme, former president of Tartan Tony Borg explains:  “Our owner, Hamish McAlpine likes to refer to films that we release as ‘cultural hand grenades.’ We want to entertain people but we also want to push their buttons, so that even if they don’t like the film they still have to talk about it the next day” (Hahn).  This popular image of Tartan’s label grew in the mainstream from “the phenomenal success of  ‘Asian horror’ with branches such as ‘J-Horror’ and ‘K-Horror,’ which have been celebrated as the most original and innovative horror movies of the last decade” (Shin 1).  It is a fact that Asia Extreme‘s titlesare almost completely labeled under the genres of thriller or horror (Films).  On the other hand, Tartan also credits itself with “bringing Asian Extreme film to the west as well as some of the most compelling art house films of the last quarter century” (About).

Oldboy‘s success with Tartan is “hinged upon the very nature of such ambiguous marketing” (Mitsuyo 125) and in the end is piggybacked on the Asia Extreme label.  As aforementioned, the DVD case alone markets it as several genres.  Not only do we see this in the marketing of violence as part of Tartan’s brand, but also in their generic marketing of East Asian film “with scarce regard to their national origins” (Choi 9).  This pigeonholing is part of Tartan’s Asia Extreme branding, something that Oldboy became a flagship for and South Korean cinema as a whole.  Oldboy “established a new record as the best-selling Asian film in the UK in December 2004” (Jung 2) and became “the first Korean film to achieve mainstream UK success.  It remains the most popular and best‐known Korean film in the UK.  For many British audiences, Oldboy was the first Korean film they saw” (Martin 16).  Moreover, “Oldboy had Tartan’s biggest ever marketing budget… [and] became Tartan Films’ biggest ever financial success” (Martin 14).  Thus in Oldboy‘s case, its success worked to help reinforce the branded image it was partially crafted by.  This quote from Tartan’s site encompasses this idea here:

Launched in 2001, this hugely successful range of cutting edge titles came into existence with the success of such ground-breaking films as OLDBOY, AUDITION and BATTLE ROYALE.  Since then, Asia Extreme has been single-handedly responsible for the groundswell of interest in Asian cinema and the widespread attention that its roster of World class directors, such as Hideo Nakata, Miike Takashi, Kim Ki-duk and Park Chan-wook” (Asian).­­  Park’s success with Oldboy and the Vengeance Trilogy makes him a director worth marketing, Tartan placing him in high esteem as a ‘World class director.

PARK CHAN-WOOK FROM PRESS KIT © TARTAN FILMS 2005

The final image is that of Park Chan-wook and though it is not from the film, it shows us another angle of Tartan’s marketing: the talent.  After winning at Cannes, some scholars claim that “Park established himself as a hybrid auteur — one who is adept at both commercially oriented films and cult films” (Choi 59).  The idea of Park as an auteur would also help his films fit into an art-film category as some scholars argue (Bordwell 373-379).  Park has also been successful outside the Vengeance Trilogy due to what one critic calls his “unique mastery of the mechanical aspects of his craft, evidenced by his technical brilliance and stylistic hauteur” (Smith). As a director within Korean Wave (hallyu), a term from China that came to represent South Korean “cultural products such as cinema, television drama, [and] popular music” (Jung 1).  Park found his initial and greatest box office success with Joint Secuirty Area (Park Chan-wook, 2001), which was “the best-selling film in Korean history,” though it was eclipsed by Friend a few months later, it still ranks 19th (Paquet).  This success that predates Oldboy‘s release demonstrates sound reasoning for Park’s press photo to be included.

CONCLUSION:  ADD ‘HALLYU’ AND ‘OTHER’ TO TASTE

© TARTAN FILMS 2005

It is clear in the analysis that the number one image that is being marketed is suggested violence and therefore graphic content.  This subject matter appears throughout the many bloody press images and is an important tool that Asia Extreme uses to market their shocking and horrifying cinema. This same violence works to brand Oldboy with Tartan’s marketed image of  ‘art-house film,’ reinforcing elements of violence and sexualityas part of an East Asian well made film.  We have seen how Oldboy is obscured through the lens of its branding, stripping it of much notion of South Korean cinema, leaving us instead with the impression of another horror thriller from Tartan.  Moreover, the biggest notion of hallyu we are given is the listing of the festival awards it won on the DVD case.  This is interesting, seeing how Oldboy can be considered a kind of flagship for South Korean cinema in the UK, or at the very least Tartan’s highest selling Korean import in the UK.  It is instead more evident that Oldboy is part of a bigger marketing ploy, one relying on a group image of ‘exotic’ and what many consider an image of otherness.  Essentially, the promotional media used can be accused of  ” ‘piggy-backing’ on orientalism; attempting to get free publicity for a film by attaching it to ‘pre-sold’ elements” (Dew 70).  These “pre-sold elements” exist in Oldboy‘s attachment to Tartan’s exotic product branding and much less in its own image.

It cannot be denied that there is an ethnic Asian image in the press shots for the film, but this ethnic presence could easily be British Asian or any other nationality.  However, it can be argued that this image is at least a little ‘exotic’ due to the fact that only 1.6% of the UK population is estimated to be from an East Asian ethnic background (National).  Though one cannot qualify how the public reads the images of the actors or director within the UK, we can see how it might add to the effectiveness of the marketing of the Other by Tartan.  For example, the repetitive marketing shows that “the promise of danger and of the unexpected is linked with the way in which these films are marketed according to their otherness from Hollywood, and subsequently feeds in to many of the typical fantasies of the ‘Orient’ characterised by exoticism, mystery and danger” (Eleftheriotis 9).  This idea intersects nicely with the use of excessive genre labeling and marketing of violence from Tartan.  The ‘otherness from Hollywood’ on the other hand is validated by many critics who point out the differences from the West, speculating that South Korean directors “made up their own rules and learned to take chances, both artistically and financially.  Korean films offered violence that was more graphic and action that was faster-paced.  Audiences lapped it up” (Frater).  This quote also shows us ‘pigeonholing’ of South Korean filmmaking, further reflecting on the Other and its association as “Asia, where the farthest reaches of extreme cinema are to be found” (Bradshaw).

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Filmography:

 

Alice. Dir. Jan Svankmajer. Perf. Kristýna Kohoutová, Camilla Power. First Run Features, 2000. DVD.

Oldboy. Dir. Park Chan-Wook. Perf. Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang. 2003. Tartan Video USA, 2007. Blu-Ray.

Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance/Oldboy/Lady Vengeance). Dir. Park Chan-Wook. Perf. Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang. Tartan Video USA, 2010. Blu-Ray.

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Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.

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About Jeremy Shattuck 43 Articles
Jeremy Shattuck is a screenwriter, post-production ninja and award-winning writer. His current mission is to help incubate culturally relevant films in New Mexico through screenwriting workshops.