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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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.
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]