Old Boy (2003)
As always, these breakdowns contain SPOILERS, and are only recommended if you've already seen the movie. You can check my introduction to these breakdowns, to get an overview of my process and philosophy.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!
Director: Chan-wook Park
Writer: Garon Tsuchiya (story), Nobuaki Minegishi (comic), Chan-wook Park (screenplay), Joon-hyung Lim (screenplay), Jo-yun Hwang
Release Date: 2003
Runtime: 120 minutes
Movie Level Goals
Protagonist: Dae-Su Oh
External Goal: Learn the truth about his imprisonment
SUCCESS | FAILURE
Internal Goal: Learn to love and care for another
SUCCESS | FAILURE
External leads to Internal: Dae-su must go through his ordeal in order to be humbled and learn to love and care for another
Observation #1: The Act I Goal/Inciting Incident
Act I's can be interesting. They are often the only act that doesn't feature a goal for the protagonist. In these cases, the movie starts with the protagonist living their status-quo until the onset of the inciting incident. Sometimes, the inciting incident causes the formation of a goal that provides direction for the rest of the act. This is often true with an early inciting incident. In other cases, however, the inciting incident leaves the protagonist somewhat unmoored, and unsure of what to do. This often happens with inciting incidents that happen later in the act. In these cases, you could say the goal is to figure out what to do as a result of the inciting incident.
A classic example is Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The inciting incident for Luke has a set-up and pay-off. The set-up is the initial purchase of R2D2 (after the original purchase malfunctions). The pay-off is the discovery of Princess Leia's message on R2D2. When Obi-Wan Kenobi tries to recruit Luke to join his rescue effort, Luke makes excuses, and spends the next couple of scenes ruminating before returning home and discovering that his aunt and uncle have been murdered (the Act I Climax). It's only at this point that he forms an act level that propels Act II.
Old Boy is structured similarly, though a little more complexly. The set-up of the inciting incident is of course Dae-su's kidnapping. The pay-off is his release. Dae-su does form a goal in response to the inciting incident--to escape his imprisonment, though ironically he is released just as he is about to escape. Because of this, his release might feel like the climax of Act I (at 22 minutes its certainly possible). However, Dae-su's status quo is not his life before being kidnapped; it's his life in prison. This is what he and we see as the status quo, so it's his release that creates an imbalance. Therefore, the goal of escaping doesn't fully define the first act, which is why I don't label it as the Act I goal. Dae-su has been imprisoned for 15 years--what will he do next? He spends the next 6 minutes of the movie resisting sex, getting in a fight, smoking a cigarette, and looking for food in the form of a live octopus. It's only once he meets Mido and is hypnotized that he forms his Act II goal--to discover the identity of the person who imprisoned him.
Observation #2: Too much success?
I've often seen screenwriting "gurus" and manual writers claim that a script or movie must have protagonist's fail along the way in order for the character's arc to be convincing and for the movie to be dramatic. Old Boy shows why this is much more complicated than it seems. Dae-su is actually quite successful in nearly everything he does. Note that every act goal ends in success (even the smaller goal in Act I of escaping is basically successful). There are two keys here. First, the context of the goal matters. In the case of Acts II and III, Dae-su seeks knowledge. But he doesn't know what that knowledge will be, so the thing he seeks may be positive or negative. And even then, the climaxes of Act II and III are not overly negative. His meeting of Woo-jin at the Act II climax and his memory of the event from high school at the Act III climax are not inherently negative to Dae-su. It's only when he learns their full context in Act IV, that he discovers the true horror of what Woo-jin has done to him. This leads to the second point, which is the importance of informational context. Dae-su's goals are successful in part because he lacks full awareness of Woo-jin's plan. But even keeping that in mind Dae-su does get revenge in Act IV (though like his escape, it's not really his own doing) and he is able to live "happily ever after" with Mido after he is hypnotized one last time.
Observation #3: International Film Structure
The type of structured, external goal oriented approach to screenwriting and moviemaking that we're discussing here is one we normally associate with more classical Hollywood films. Using Robert McKee's terms, this structure is usually associated with the arch-plot and its focus on externalizing character wants and needs for a mass audience. On the other hand, we tend to assume that indie and international movies are more likely to be mini-plots. with more internalized wants and needs, because we assume that these movies are less concerned with appealing to a mass audience. These assumptions are often faulty, however, and one of the main faults is assuming that international films are specifically aiming for a smaller audience used to more nuance. Korean movies are a prime example of an international cinema that nevertheless often aims for mass appeal. We see this in well know Korean horror films like Bong Joon Ho's The Host (2006) or his Oscar winning film Parasite. And the same is true of many of Chan-wook Park's films. Old Boy may be more boundary-pushing than Hollywood movies, and it may also be more complex in it's symbolism and imagery, but it's narrative is highly goal-oriented and structured (as seen by the fact that it was remade 10 years later in English by Spike Lee).