FILM FLASHBACKS :
A narrative device used in Film (as in literature) to go back in time to an earlier moment in a character’s life and/or history, and to narrate that moment. Flashbacks, then, are most clearly marked as subjective moments within that narrative. Flashbacks are a cinematic representation of memory and of history and, ultimately, of subjective truth. (Hayward, 1996)
The flashback is a privileged moment in unfolding that juxtaposes different moments of temporal reference. A juncture is wrought between present and past and two concepts are implied in this juncture: memory and history. (Turim, 2013)
Oldboy (2003) Directed by Park Chan-wook. The film starts immediately into a flashback or in this case a flashforward sequence, this is due to where this sequence is positioned in the timeline of the film, however the audience would not be aware that this is a flashforward, due to there being no preceding historical reference, this is not a memory of an event from Dae-su’s past. We see a dishevelled man dressed in a suit and restraining another man by his tie, this man, also wearing a suit and for an unexplained reason incongruously holding a small white dog. They are on the roof of a tall building, the man with the dog hanging precariously at the buildings edge over a long drop to the street below. The only thing stopping that fall from happening and the man and dog’s imminent death is the other man holding his tie, this is a suicide attempt, interrupted by the man grabbing at the tie. “I just wanted to talk” he says, “who are you” says the other, “my name is” we see a troubled face, a man struggling to remember his name as the camera zooms closer into a face that is hard to see but we see a man struggling to remember his name as we jump cut to a matching shot this time of a business man with a bloody nose, Dae-su he says. Is this the man from the roof, whose face we couldn’t really see and who struggled to remember his own name? What could have happened to this man, that brought him to the top of a tall building and without any memory of who he is? As the scene continues and Dae-su exits the building there is a loud crash and we see the body of the man falling onto a parked car, crushing the roof as the dog falls from the dead man’s hands.
The use of a flashback/flashforward in this context I believe was to ether prepare or further disorientate the audience for what is to come, leave them with open questions, for example what did happen to the business man, how did he come to find himself on the roof of a building preventing a suicide attempt, while not knowing who he is and what where the events that led him to be in this situation? The use of a flashforward is relatively unusual and rarely used when compared with the common use of flashbacks to link back to a past event, a memory from a character’s history. This may be very confusing to the audience, because the conventional use of a flashback is to reveal a past memory, a personal memory of this character, that is, in this businessman’s past, the audience is probably thinking, is this something that Dae-su is remembering? After viewing more of the film, we know that this flashback is a link to something that will happen to this businessman’s future self, in 15 years’ time and with hindsight this flashforward makes more sense. This presumably was an editorial choice made by the director, for without this opening sequence the film would have started with the somewhat less dramatic opening and the audience being introduced to the main character, Dae-su waiting to be processed in a Police Station, nursing a bloody nose and still very drunk, rather than the life and death situation at the top of a tall building.
Some flashbacks directly involve a quest for the answer to an enigma posed in the beginning of a narrative through a return to the past. (Turim, 2013)
In the next flashback scene which involves his daughter Mi-do, Mi-do is reading Dae-su journals and his description of ants crawling all over him, devouring from the inside, while he is held captive, as this develops into a discussion on loneliness the camera starts to zoom in, to a close up of Mi-do’s face, just as a subway train seemingly appears over her left shoulder until it fills the entire frame. We cut to an internal shot of the train; we see a young Mi-do looking towards the back of the carriage. In a reverse shot we look through the appendages of a giant ant. From Mi-do’s viewpoint we see the giant ant seated at the back of the train, the image is blurred like a distant memory is being recalled, which becomes more blurred as we return to a close up of the young Mi-do’s face.
As the young Mi-do wipes her hands across her face there is a jump cut to the current timeline as Mi-do completes the hand movement across her face, we are out of the flashback and back to the present. This flashback appears to be of a memory of a hallucination she had rather than a memory of actual events A shared hallucination with Dae-su and therefore could this be related to the hypnotism we later learn both characters were subjected to? Dae-su in his cell and Mi-do at the restaurant where she works, this is revealed in another flashback where the hypnotist visits her at her work. Ants also have a significance in the South Korean creation mythology, the great flood, and Namu Doryeong, who is saved from the flood by floating on a tree and then proceeds to save first a family of ants, then mosquitos until he saves all the worlds animals. (Anon, 2018)
It seems appropriate at this point to talk about framing decisions made by the director, in each of these flashbacks. The character who is shown to be experiencing the flashback and whose memory this is, is positioned central in the frame and then using a zoom action or scale in to a close up filling the screen until we just see a head shot. When coming out of the flashback and returning to the current timeline the camera zooms out to a matching shot of the character in the current timeline who is also centrally positioned in the frame. To do this successfully requires great attention to detail in the pre-production stage. Matching shots between scenes and matching the framing takes planning, although exact matching can be achieved in the post-production stage using scale function but of course only if the shot has been taken during filming or taken at a later date as a pick-up shot.
Though avant-garde and art cinema and memory films constitute privileged locations for investigating cinema’s relation to memory, those relations extend to almost every genre and every period of film history—shadowing, if not coinciding exactly with the history of the flashback. (Radstone, 2010)
Dae-su clues lead him to the Millstone Hair Saloon to find out more about Lee Soo-ah. As he listens to the woman recalling past memories he is somewhat distracted, repeatedly looking to her knees as if trying to recall a memory, a key event from his past, then as the door opens, and a woman enters the Millstone Hair Saloon to the sound of the ringing of the door entry bell, the camera tracks down to the women’s bare knees and suddenly Dae-su seems to remember. The scene cuts to a flashback of a young Dae-su and his memory of a young women riding a red bicycle, accompanied by the ringing of the cycles bell and the pumping knees of the girl prominent in the framing. All these elements are used to match with the scene set in the present with this memory from Dea-su past. This is the memory of the first meeting between Dae-su and his antagonist, Lee Woo-jin and his sister Lee Soo-ah.
Bordwell says flashbacks can be initiated by any number and indeed types of cues. “For instance, there are several cues for a flashback in a classical Hollywood film: pensive character attitude, close-up of face, slow dissolve, voice-over narration, sonic ‘flashback,’ music. In any given case, several of these will be used together. In another mode of film practice, such as that of the European ‘art cinema’ of the 1960s, the same general paradigm governs a movement into flashback, but the conventional cues are not so redundant (e.g., pensive close-up but with no music or dissolve). The classical paradigm thus often lets the filmmaker choose how to be redundant, but seldom how redundant to be.” (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002) p5
This flashback sequence uses several elements, the ringing of the hair saloons shop bell, the visuals of the customers knees linking to the visuals and audio of the cycles bell and the bare knees of Lee Soo-ah riding the cycle around the school playground. This breaks away from the visual cues apparent in the preceding flashbacks, instead of matching shots of close ups of faces, in this instance matching visuals of the two bells, the bare knees and audio from the shop bell and the cycle bell. Contained within this flashback is the reason for the conflict, the basis for the entire film and the reason for Lee Woo-jin and his his vengeance on Dae-su. This is a good example for one of the key reasons for the use of flashbacks in film and literature as Radstone says “The flashback is a crucial moment in a film narrative, one that captures the cinematic expression of memory, and history.” (Radstone, 2010).
The flashback of the younger Dae-su and his first encounter with Lee Soo-ah is also observed by the adult Dae-su in this flashback, Dae-su, a spectator in his own memory of this crucial event. He follows his younger self in the flashback and sees what he sees from a different perspective, while remembering the event as it unfolds its causality, leading to everything that has happened to him, one of the contributing factors for his being incarcerated for 15 years. The flashback ends with the adult Dae-su walking away from the camera to a voice over by Mi-do “ No way, you were locked up for just saying that?”.
The flashback involving Mi-do and the hypnotherapist in the restaurant cannot be a memory of either Dae-su or Woo-jin as they were not present in that scene. This scene set in Woo-jin’s Penthouse Woo-jin describes how both Dae-su and Mi-do have both been hypnotised. As neither were participants in this event there is a change to the visuals in the flashback sequence, this flashback differs from the previous flashbacks, for this time there is a jump cut into the flashback sequence, without any attempt at matching shots as there where in all the others. However, within the flashback, the image of Mi-do being hypnotised cross dissolves into the matching image of Dae-su also being hypnotised in a different location. The flashback continues set in the restaurant and by using a split screen with Woo-jin in one side and the flashback sequence in the other, he continues to narrate the scenario in the flashback as he understands it, rather than as he remembers it, until the flashback sequence ends as Dae-su is revealed later in the flashback to be unconscious from the post hypnotic suggestion and is seated in the back a car driving away in the company of Mi-do presumably to Mi-do’s home. Leaving behind a devasted Dae-su, Woo-jin exits his Penthouse via the elevator, cue music while Woo-Jin appears to reach out to a hand extended from beneath him, from the floor of the elevator, there is a jump cut to a younger Woo-jin standing at the ledge of dam desperately holding his sisters wrist as she attempts suicide, falling to the waters surface, distantly below. She reaches out to the camera hanging around his neck and takes one last photo of herself. In the flashback the scene alternates between images of Woo-jin’s younger and adult self as the scene plays out, with the younger Woo-jin losing his grip on his sisters’ wrist who then falls to her death.
But then the scene switches again, back to the adult Woo-jin standing at the edge of the dam looking at his empty hand, the hand that lost its grip on his sisters’ wrist.
As he looks at his hand it begins to clench forming the shape of a gun, there is a jump cut back to Woo-jin in the elevator, he has just shot himself in the head, the shots matched between the clenched hand in the flashback and the current timeline where he holds a gun to kill himself. In this flashback Woo-jin was a participant, this was his memory of the event and so the screen visuals matched going into and out of the flashback. His right hand seemingly reaching out and holding his sisters wrist in the elevator which becomes the top of the dam and his empty hand at the end of the flashback forming the shape of the gun, which initiates the end of the memory and of the flashback, as his clenched hand becomes a real gun in the elevator.
If the film depicts a flashback, the jump back in time can be attributed to a character’s memory; the act of remembering thus motivates the flashback. (Bordwell, Staiger and Thompson, 2002) p30
Technical Notes Oldboy (2003) (IMDB)
Runtime 2 hr (120 min)
1 hr 41 min (101 min) (India)
Sound Mix Dolby Digital
Aspect Ratio 2.35 : 1
Camera Arriflex 435, Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses
Arriflex 535B, Zeiss Ultra Prime and Angenieux Optimo Lenses
Negative Format 35 mm (Kodak)
Cinematographic Process Digital Intermediate (master format)
Super 35 (source format)
Printed Film Format 35 mm (anamorphic)
- Anon (2018) Korean Folktales – Korea Blog – Inspire Me Korea Blog. Available at: https://blog.inspiremekorea.com/history/korean-folktales/ (Accessed: 21 February 2020).
- Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (2002) The classical Hollywood Cinema Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960.
- Oldboy (2003) – Technical Specifications – IMDb (2003). Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0364569/technical (Accessed: 9 March 2020).
- Hayward, S. (1996) Key concepts in cinema studies. London ; New York: Routledge.
- Radstone, S. (2010) ‘Cinema and memory’, in Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Fordham University Press, pp. 325–342.
- Turim, M. (2013) Flashbacks in film: Memory & history, Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History. Taylor and Francis. doi: 10.4324/9781315851761.