Oldboy is another one of those movies I avoided for so long because of incessant internet hype from the same fanboys who wouldn’t shut up about Azumanga Daioh. I would live to regret this. I was hanging out with a friend who has always turned me on to the most stimulating movies of the time when he insisted on showing me Oldboy’s flagship scene, the trophy shot that had everyone talking. The scene in question is a five minute, single take tracking shot down a hallway as Oldboy protagonist, Oh Dae Su, pounds his way through a crowd of gangsters armed only with a hammer and his determination to find the truth. It’s breath taking. Trevor, the friend in question, knows how to tempt and never shows too much in just such an instance. I didn’t get to see any more of the movie. I promptly went home and scanned Ebay for the very same copy that he showed me, the beuatifully packaged Show East edition. It cost considerably more than the $5 bootlegs and the second supplement disc, packed with special features, contained not a single subtitle, but it was an alluring package and I had to have it. The investment paid off.
I’ve always liked Asian cinema. It’s remarkably different from what you’ve come to see in the West, even in Europe. Each Asian culture has a distinct method of storytelling, even in their schlocky genre movies. Though by this time I was very familiar with Hong Kong and Japan’s movie offerings, this would be one of the first times I would see anything from South Korea. By this point I’d fallen out with Hong Kong. Their industry continues to kick out tons of worthwhile movies, but I lost track of what was good and worth watching. Japan still seems very hung up on making ghost stories featuring little dead girls with hair in their faces but Korea! This was something I’d never seen before. I’d seen Volcano High School and I loved it but that was just a tiny piece. Oldboy was a door to a much bigger world and I still consider it to be one of the most vital filmmaking scenes in the world.
Oh Dae Su is good for nothing. When we meet him, he’s waiting in a police station, under arrest for drunken behavior. After being picked up by a friend and a quick phone call home to his daughter, Dae Su is snatched off the street by persons unknown and not seen again by the public for fifteen years. What we come to learn is that Dae Su is being held in a makeshift prison somewhere in Seoul for reaons he doesn’t know. No one will tell him anything and he has no idea how long he will be there. For fifteen years, he waits. After a couple of suicide attempts, Dae Su makes a new plan. Come hell or high water, he will find out who did this to him and have his revenge. He begins obsessively keeping a journal, recalling all the people he could have wronged to make them go this far to get back at him. The list is quite long. He trains his body and punches a man-shaped drawing on the wall until his knuckles are calloused. He also works dilligently, through the years, grinding away the mortar between the bricks to knock a hole in the wall and escape. Meanwhile, his only window the outside world is a television in his room.
I loves me some revenge movies. Single-minded determination toward payback is something I can really get into for reasons unknown to me and most likely unhealthy. Oldboy begins to look like a fairly standard modern riff on The Count of Monte Cristo right from the outset, but as the story progresses you’ll start to notice it veering slowly off course. If there’s one thing that director Park Chan Wook is good at, he can create a perfectly sympathetic character out of a complete asshole. Oldboy falls second in line of a trilogy of revenge movies that began with Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and ended with Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (or simply Lady Vengeance depending on your market). Each film features different characters against strange circumstances, each justified in their quest for revenge but the path taken and the resolution for each movie winds up in the last likely place you ever thought you’d find yourself after such an intense labor. The main characters never begin as people you’d like to hang out with yet they’re wronged so deeply that you can’t help but feel bad for them. Rather than play off established revenge ideas familiar to fans of Death Wish, Park’s trilogy plays more or less as a meditation on different aspects of revenge. Of the three, Oldboy is my favorite and the most comic book styled of the three. It should come as no surprise then, that Oldboy is based on a manga series.
One day, as Dae Su draws close to breaking out his prison, he is knocked out by gas in his room and then wakes up on the roof of some building. It turns out that aside from fifteen years of world events that have passed, a few more things have happened in the meantime. Someone broke into Dae Su’s old home and murdered his wife, leaving behind forensic evidence from Dae Su’s cell that suggests he is the killer. His very young daughter has since been relocated to a family in Switzerland. Unsure of what to do and how to behave in a world he is so far behind, Dae Su engages some punks in fisticuffs to find out that his fake training has paid off and to follow it up, he gets some sushi, or rather a live octopus to eat. A bum also hands off a wallet full of cash and a cell phone. Dae Su meets sushi chef, Mido at the sushi bar and then receives a call from his tormentor. Dae Su has five days to figure out who put him in jail. If he figures it out, his tormentor will kill himself. Thus begins the chase. Before things really get rolling, though, Dae Su passes out and wakes up in Mido’s apartment.
Together, they begin scouring the city for the only clue that Dae Su has to find his kidnapper: The dumplings that he ate every day in jail and a scrap of receipt that helps him narrow down which restaurant it is. They eat a shitload of dumplings in the meantime, but it happens. Dae Su find the right restaurant and follows a delivery boy to the prison where he tortures the guy in charge by pulling his teeth out with a hammer until he gets more about his captor. Their conversation is recorded but the only reply as to why he wants Dae Su to go away for so long is “Oh Dae Su talks too much.” On the way out, Dae Su must face down a wave of gangsters in the hall, armed only with a hammer.
Gritty doesn’t even begin to cover it. Oldboy is extremely heavy. It is one of the most unique movies I’ve ever seen and visually rich. Each frame is packed with so much color and action that Park Chan Wook earns his own unique filmmaking style. Min Sik Choi, who plays Dae Su, plays the character with such a flat demeanor yet manages to say so much with the most subtle facial expressions. While much of his acting gets lost in translation, such as the way he speaks, which everyone finds strange (probably has something to do with watching obscene amounts of television daily) his performance comes across clear enough to understand exactly what is going on. He is a man singularly dedicated to getting revenge. However, as the movie progresses, the tables begin to turn.
It doesn’t take long for the phantom voice on the phone to show himself to Dae Su. Lee Woo Jin lures Dae Su to a confrontation where he drops a few more hints and sets Dae Su off on the right path to get to the bottom of the story. Along the way, Dae Su reunites with the same friend who bailed him out of jail 15 years ago and together they try to figure out who Woo Jin is. What they discover brings us to the resolution and turns the entire movie on its ear.
You’re left to wonder: Whose revenge is this movie about, anyway?
It’s best that I say no more.
Oldboy is like no movie I’d ever seen before. It tends not to wear its influences on its sleeve and I’m sure that any comparisons you can draw are coincidental at best. At times it feels as though David Fincher, Jean Pierre Jeunet and Franz Kafka got together and made a movie. Park Chan Wook, at this time, was the most exciting director working in the world. His movies, up to this point and even into Lady Vengeance, were powerhouses of emotion and experimental storytelling. Oldboy is an intense picture where no one is in control of anything and madness rules.
I caught this one a couple of years ago at a local theater after bugging them so long to book it. I swear, I’ve never seen more people walk out of a movie than this one. Always at the scenes of violence, particularly the removal of the gangster’s teeth and Dae Su’s final confrontation with Woo Jin. It’s quite a stomach turner. If the overall tone or the reasons for the revenge aren’t enough to bum you out then the on screen violence should put you over the edge. It’s hardly Miike-style violence, but in context, it is quite nasty. But Oldboy isn’t an action movie nor is it a horror movie. It’s not really about the violence. It goes to great lengths to put you in Dae Su’s shoes.
A fantastic introduction to the world of Korean film, Oldboy sets the bar pretty high and puts a spin on the typical trappings of revenge pictures. Though quite far-fetched, the complicated plotting lends much to the surreal, nightmare qualities. Oldboy has quickly risen to the top of my all-time favorite list. It’s a challenging movie and sometimes a real task to make it through, but rewarding in the end. You’ll want more from Park after seeing it.