Twenty Years Later, ‘Oldboy’ Is Still as Stylish as Ever

The classic South Korean thriller is back in theaters for its 20th anniversary. The film’s costume designer explains why the clothes deserve just as much praise as that twist ending.

Oldboy costume designer Jo Sanggyeong purposely chose a flashy pair of sunglasses that would clash with Choi Minsik to...

Oldboy costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong purposely chose a flashy pair of sunglasses that would clash with Choi Min-sik, to leave a strong impression on the audience of how unbothered Dae-su is.Courtesy of Neon

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.

The style in Oldboy feels as fresh as it did 20 years ago, in part because costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong referenced suits referenced looks from the ’60s movies and designed a classic style, like the one seen on Choi Min-sik here, instead of following current Korean trends.Courtesy of Neon
What was it like working with Park Chan-wook? What insights did he have on the costuming?

Oldboy was my first work with Director Park, so we spent [more] hours on extensive discussions than we did for all of our future projects. During these discussions, he would tell me the goal of the scene, then I’d suggest an idea for how to go about it. For instance, if he’s concerned about the blood showing too well on a white shirt in the ending, then we can try a red shirt. Or when he said he wanted Dae-su Oh’s sunglasses to look off, I suggested a flashier design.

Honestly, I did not know too much about fashion and clothes at the time, so I could only base suggestions on my own taste. Back in my twenties, I loved silent films and French noir, so I suggested an overall European-style costume, which I think Director Park also liked. For instance, three-button suits were trending in Korea at the time, but we used a two-button suit to make the V zone look longer, and I think today, that’s one of the best decisions that allowed the film to not age in terms of its style. I really felt that I gained Director Park’s trust after Oldboy from the fact that he didn’t want to spend time commenting on costumes for our future projects. [laughs]

What was the process of putting together Dae-su Oh’s now iconic pinstripe suit?

The pinstripe suit in the later part of the film is a DuPont suit. All the other suits were specifically designed for the film. I went around Seoul’s Sogong-dong and Gangnam area in search of a tailor and I finally met someone who crafted handmade suits. I still work with this tailor today.

As mentioned earlier, I didn’t think the suits trending in Korea at the time looked cool at all, so I referenced the suits of characters from Melville movies and designed a classic style suit with the tailor. We designed the black suit with red in the interior, so even with a black suit and shirt, we can see some red with certain movements. The way in which the suits were worn was to portray the character’s emotions and will. Dae-su Oh is wearing the suit provided by Woo-jin Lee — the same suit and shirt design — but adjusted according to the actor. Woo-jin Lee’s suit is all-black with a clear white shirt and tie, but Dae-su Oh wears a black shirt with no tie and a pinstripe suit. This was to provide a sense of texture for the film look at the time.

How did you go about picking out Dae-su Oh’s sunglasses?

I chose them to best express how unbothered Dae-su is, just snatching a random person’s sunglasses from the elevator. They had to clash with Choi Min-sik’s image when he wore them, in addition to leaving a strong impression on the audience, so I purposefully chose a design that men don’t often wear.

Oldboy costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong taught Yoo Ji-tae how to tie a tie on his own, and told him that the hand movements have to be as sexy and elegant as possible.Courtesy of Neon.
How did you go about coordinating and contrasting the many patterns in the film? It looks so modern and seamless and feels very ahead of its time in the way people wear patterns today.

I underlined ‘checkered pattern,’ which was mentioned frequently in the scene descriptions. I thought about the flow of the pattern, which led to the thought of wanting this pattern to continue on location. So, I used it on the pattern of Mi-Do’s costume. By doing so, one scene could connect to the next with the continuing pattern and make the world look consistent as if it’s all just a game designed by Woo-jin. I had discussions with the art director, and we created an emphasized and continuing pattern in this fashion. So that the pattern seen in the set design can continue on in Mi-do’s patterned clothes on location in the next scene. Stylistically speaking, I referenced looks from the ’60s. If it does not feel old today, it was because I didn’t follow the trend of the time and instead referenced a more classic look.

Mi-do (Hye-jeong) is always in brights and patterns—was that to make her Dae-su’s foil? I love that last shirt we see her in with the pattern when she’s trapped while waiting to see what will happen between Dae-su and Woo-jin.

When working on a film set in contemporary times, I do a trend search. And I came upon brands I’d never heard of at the time called Custo Barcelona and a Hong Kong brand called Paperbag (which I believe no longer exists), and I actively used them for styling Mi-do. At the time, those brands weren’t common, so they helped create an unfamiliar look, and their flashy print design helped create the concept. We used a Custo Barcelona shirt for the scene that you mentioned. For the scenes of researching dumpling places and the scene in the subway, I found printed fabrics and created the costumes. And for the ending scene, after everything is over, I wanted her to portray innocence—like Little Red Riding Hood—so I used a beret and a red coat.

Woo-jin Lee is so stylish—creating a clear aura of wealth but also street stylish with his bucket hats and members-only jackets. He’s just so suave but smarmy. What was the vision for him?

One of the first characters I had to design for the film was Woo-jin Lee. Only when I worked out what level of clothes he liked to wear could I move on to design Dae-su Oh’s clothes to match. I spent the most time thinking of the costume Woo-jin’s wearing when he runs into Dae-su on the street because I wanted to make sure he blends in with the crowd which was so hard because he’s so tall. Then when they reunite at the apartment, I wanted to create a quietly and elegantly threatening image for Woo-jin. That’s why I used a jumper with a similar tone to the room Dae-su was locked in, then added a burgundy color for the interior to match the lining material of Dae-su’s clothes.

This reminds me of the scene in which Woo-jin was dressing up after his shower. I taught Yoo Ji-tae how to tie a tie on his own and told him that the hand movements have to be as sexy and elegant as possible. I remember him continuing to practice it on the spot. He was twenty-six years old at the time, and I learned how an actor uses their physicality from him.

There’s so much use of scarlet, maroons, and deep reds—what does using that color palette signify? And especially at the end with Dae-su Oh wearing a burgundy button-down with his classic suit before going into battle which also feels like a nod to Woo-jin Lee.

I purposefully made them look similar, and I decided to use a warm color palette because of Choi Min-sik. Back then, movies were shot on film, and those colors were the most typical accent colors in a noir, and they were also the colors that went best with Choi Min-sik’s image.

How was it dressing the flashback story about Woo-jin Lee, Dae-su Oh and Woo-jin’s sister, especially when it came to Dae-su Oh’s school uniform?

The flashback scene is set in the 70s, so the costumes were summer school uniforms from that time in Korea. In the case of Woo-jin’s sister, I used red and purple checkered patterns to match the overall concept of the film, so that the checkered pattern could leave an impression on Woo-jin, leading him to use purple patterns himself throughout the film. Dae-su’s style is training clothes from the time with the jacket open to make him look like a delinquent. Training clothes are what male high school students wore during military training at school in the 70s.

In the final scene of Oldboy, costume designer Jo Sang-gyeong wanted Mi-do (Hye-jeong) to portray innocence like Little Red Riding Hood.Courtesy of Neon.
You have worked with Park Chan-wook pretty consistently since Oldboy—how has it been having that relationship and continuing to help create the vision of the worlds he’s put together?

After the release of Oldboy, a musician friend of mine told me that the film ignited a burning passion in his heart, so he watched it fifty times, and I was so shocked to hear that. At the time, I wasn’t particularly moved by anything. I spent my thirties working on Lady Vengeance, I’m A Cyborg, and Thirst, and I felt the same. It was all just work to me.

Now, I’m a workaholic who worked on over a hundred films for more than twenty years, so I might say that I don’t have that burning passion, but my actions demonstrate otherwise —Oldboy had indeed turned me into the most passionate person. If I hadn’t done Oldboy, I wouldn’t have worked on movies, and working with Director Park helped me think about how far we should think when working on a movie, what our work means, and helped me grow with the joyous stress and sense of responsibility that not only Korean audiences but audiences all over the world are watching our film. I guess I should thank him. [laughs]

Do you have any favorite looks from the film that you’ve looked back on?

I think this only made a very brief appearance, but in the scene in which Mi-do is crying with her mascara running down her face, then sees an ant in the subway, she’s wearing a blue coat with a star print in that scene. That was one of the first costumes that was designed and it helped me take my first step in understanding the character Mi-do. I donated it to a charity auction hosted to build wells in Africa with Director Park’s permission, of course.

How do you feel about the re-release and seeing that so much of the costuming is timely today? And how has it felt seeing your career and what you’ve done evolve since Oldboy?

I still continue to work with the cast and crew from the time in 2002. This is very rare in Korea.I think our young, pure, and passionate love for film at the time can be felt by contemporary filmmakers and audiences, which is why they still appreciate the film.

I’m inherently introverted, so I’ve gained communication skills over the years and probably improved my skills, but I’m still curious when I come upon a new story and spend time studying it. I come into projects like Oldboy, The Handmaiden, Squid Game, etc., each of which has its own story and world, with the same mindset, so perhaps I’m dull to changes and am continuing to do the same work over and over again. [laughs] I was quite surprised by this question. Have I improved and evolved over the years…there’s still a long way to go. I need to live for as long as possible. [laughs]

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