Last week, I picked up a copy of Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (Criterion), which tells the story of Ryunosuke, a master swordsman and aimless samurai who devotes his talents to killing and evil acts. There’s a lot that makes the film unforgettable: the brutality of the action, the abrupt ending, the subtle ways it kicks against samurai film tropes and the captivating performances by Tatsuya Nakadai and Toshiro Mifune. But a few things stood out that reminded me of Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece Oldboy.
Every cinephile knows about the iconic one-take hallway fight scene from the 2003 South Korean film, but even if you’ve seen it before, it’s always worth another watch.
To get this out of the way, I’m not here to claim that at some point Chan-wook Park watched The Sword of Doom and said “That’s it!” or that he owes all his brilliance to this film. I’m just here to ponder on the interesting nature of how certain shots, techniques and moments travel their way in time through film.
The fight scene in The Sword of Doom that comes to mind finds Ryunosuke (Nakadai) confronted by various members of a clan after he’s killed one of theirs in a fight. They try to ambush him in the woods, but they are no match for him. He mows his way through them in a sustained tracking shot just as in Oldboy. The scene ends with a wide shot of Ryunosuke standing among the carnage, then a closeup of the smile that comes over his face, similar to the one that appears on Choi Min-sik’s Dae-su almost 30 years later.
To understand why this technique continued from a film in 1966 to one in 2003, we need to understand why the shot is so effective. From a technical standpoint, both scenes are nothing short of innovative and impressive, but what the sustained tracking shots communicate is a heightened effect of the violence taking place, as they don’t mask anything in quick cuts and inserts.
As technically impressive as both scenes are, what makes them so memorable is the character transformation that occurs in both. Both Ryunosuke and Oh Dae-Su go through a significant character arc in just these few minutes. When they smile, they are accepting of a dark part of themselves and know they are powerful. With each opponent they strike down, they find they like it. There’s a thrill in the discovery of their prowess in killing, and the audience feels it as well.
One of the greatest things about cinema is that characters, images and techniques travel through time to become reinterpreted. In the case of Oldboy, Park took a familiar scene and character from The Sword of Doom, but he gave it the best treatment that modern film technology would allow. It’s an excellent example of reincarnation within film, and only the future can tell how this scene will be reborn.
His Blazing Automatics is a weekly column by Dylan Moses Griffin, who has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.