Director: Park Chan-wook
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong, and Yun Jin-seo
Runtime: 120 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
Oh Dae-su has a craving after he escapes prison. “I want to eat something alive,” he explains. Served octopus, he bites into it without hesitation, chomping mouthfuls as he gathers its winding limbs. This is not a special effect. Four takes and as many octopuses later and the shot was perfect, the creature’s tentacles suctioning and caressing the actor’s face just right as he chews. Though detractors might declare animal cruelty, slice it up, serve with a garnish of pickled ginger and they call it sushi. Consume it unprepared and the act has meaning. South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) uses such gut imagery to create symbols, assigning ultra-violence, sexual perversity, and sadomasochistic torture metaphoric reasoning that ripens the twisting narrative into a stark emotional confrontation. Second in his thematic “Vengeance Trilogy” after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and before Lady Vengeance (2005), Park’s personal masterpiece represents the artistic nucleus of the three otherwise unconnected films. Based on the Japanese manga Old Boy, by writer Garon Tsuchiya and illustrator Nobuaki Minegishi, Park’s script uses the source merely as a springboard. Assigning significance to each scene like a bard to his stanzas, Park is not a wasteful filmmaker. Actions are explained with a complexity of motivation and are not all understood until the last scenes, but indeed, they are motivated—Park makes certain of it.
His story begins when drunken windbag Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is kidnapped and confined to a pseudo-prison for 15-years. He escapes and proceeds to hunt down and exact revenge upon his captors for taking so much away from him. And however rewarding his initial reprisals may be, he was released for a reason; someone watches his every move and indeed pushes his progress to a deliberate climax. What may seem like grotesqueries in the first half of the film are later justified as dramatic irony, making additional viewings crucial to grasp the remarkable intensity of the narrative beyond its initial shock. Beginning with an unsympathetic inebriate howling in a police station, the film launches when Oh Dae-su disappears after making bail. He wakes up in a hotel room complete with shower, bed, and television, the space fortified with a metal door and brick walls. He cannot leave. Daily meals of fried dumplings are given through a passage in the door. Periodically an electronic jingle announces the release of sleeping gas, and when Oh regains consciousness, his room has been cleaned and his hair groomed.
That cycle continues for days, months, years, without him ever knowing who has done this to him or why. Television breaks the news of his wife and child dying in an accident; now he is all alone. Action programs provide physical training. He punches the brick walls to pass the time, developing callus-enforced knuckles. Plagued by bizarre dreams, or maybe hallucinations, he may be under the spell of hypnosis. Time is spent journaling long lists of potential enemies, and by the stack of notebooks, Oh has not led a distinguished life. “Even though I'm no more than a monster,” he asks, “don't I, too, have the right to live?” The specifics of how he escapes are unimportant, since he is set free and made to think he escaped. He is unleashed on the world in a hardened and empty form, and his only purpose is revenge. Hungry for life, Oh meets sushi chef Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). She serves him the live octopus as a delicacy, but not before he receives a call from his former captor. “Do you know who has done this to you?” the voice asks. Oh guesses a few names from his notebooks, all wrong. The voice discloses, “I'm a sort of scholar. And my major is you.”
After his meal of cephalopod, Oh finds himself in Mi-do’s home waking from a blackout. She remarks on his dreams about ants, wherein he’s devoured from the inside-out. She says in her experience, ants signify the dreamer’s loneliness, an aspiration toward an ostensible hive collective. Mi-do dreams about ants too, or rather a man-sized ant creature on the subway, sitting by itself, isolated. If her dream-ant has no one, what chance does she have? And so, Mi-do remains by Oh’s side, eventually as an adoring lover that needs him. Shrouded by cryptic allusions and uncertain causalities, Park’s cinematic atmosphere contains a dreamlike quality best described as Kafkaesque. Indeed, the director cites Franz Kafka as an influence, except Park’s work drives forward, and unlike Kafka, resists falling into unspecified allegory. Oh meets persecution for unknown reasons by an unseen oppressor just as Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial, and Park uses insect imagery in his dream sequences shaped by The Metamorphosis. Despite his literary citations, Park never loses his audience to pretentious intellectualism and always engages on raw levels. His objective is telling a compelling story with depth, doing so in a manner that offers metaphors in the action and the resultant weight in the subtext.
Oh begins his bloody trek with the hotel warden. Compelled by his singular desire for revenge, he removes one tooth for every year imprisoned. And then we see the full extent of Oh’s television-self-training: He enters a hallway—after exploring his future in dentistry—to find it filled with the prison-hotel’s goons. Park takes a symmetrical, side-scrolling view of a massive brawl wherein Oh defeats twenty-some thugs by his strength, his sharpened will, and a hammer (Oh’s weapon of choice). This is not Jackie Chan’s graceful style of choreographed fighting, rather clumsy and desperate and natural combat. Shown in a single cut, the fracas, and Oh’s astonishing victory, positions him into the role of hero, only to be crushed as the story unfolds.
Oh Dae-su’s temporary heroic revenger function allows for Oldboy to, unfortunately, be misinterpreted as exploitation, even pigeonholed into a category of films that use violence as a primal indulgence of the senses. On the surface, Park’s variety of filmic bloodshed is represented with staggering savagery; he pushes the limits of censorship by suggesting teeth ripped from the mouth with Oh’s hammer, scissors stabbing into an ear and later cutting a tongue from its mouth. Of course, these acts are chosen for their force, their ability to confront the viewer by their concept alone. Park avoids glorifying the content and implies violence by cleverly cutting around the acts themselves. He shows the tail of Oh’s hammer clasping onto the hotel warden’s incisor like a nail; blood begins to ooze from the victim’s gums, and then Park cuts away to show a collection of removed teeth. If the director were interested in mere exploitation, his camera would have focus on the deed in all its horrible reality. But the gory details are unimportant, thus they are not shown. The action registers enough significance when communicated through smart, if unrevealing edits. Violence takes the blame because the film’s revenge scenes rest on dramatic turns more graphic than the portrayed bloodshed, and the strength of those turns makes everything else seem explicit.
Following a carefully laid trail of breadcrumbs in the form of mysterious boxes and puzzling phone calls, Oh Dae-su discovers his former high school classmate Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) is responsible for imprisoning him, for stealing his life. Oh’s crime was spreading gossip after seeing Lee and his sister sexually experiment as teens. The result was Lee’s sister committing suicide from shame. As much as Oh burns for payback, Lee has smoldered for much longer, plotting his victim’s every move since adolescence. He arranged for Oh to meet Mi-do through hypnotic suggestion, and orchestrated their love affair. Consider the scene where after Oh and Mi-do make love for the first time, Lee gasses them and joins them on the bed to appreciate his handiwork, caressing Mi-do’s bare hip like the third member of a demented ménage-a-trois. But rather than Oh finally getting his due, he is out-revenged by Lee, who enlightens Oh that Mi-do is actually his now-grown daughter that Oh believed to be dead.
Lee exacts impossibly cruel justice best compared to the likes of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, wherein scores can only be settled through the vilest, beyond excessive retribution. Pitted between his romantic ardor for Mi-do his lover and paternal love for Mi-do his daughter, Oh begs Lee not to tell her. On his knees, he vows to do anything to prevent Mi-do from learning this, and then removes his own tongue both as punishment for his gossip mongering and to protect the truth from Mi-do. Empty now that his horror show is complete, Lee has no reason to live, and kills himself. Oh resolves to find the same hypnotist that helped coordinate Lee’s revenge, and pays her to remove any memory that Mi-do is his daughter, and to separate him from the monster he became seeking revenge. Oh and Mi-do can live happily ever after, free of bad memories or the knowledge that they are father and daughter. Ending on a heartbreaking, eerily romantic note, Park’s film asks how far the old maxim “ignorance is bliss” really extends.
The energy and flash and even comic idiosyncrasy of Park’s direction, particularly in Oldboy above his other pictures, might distract from the events depicted, except they are just as unexpected. Constructing a thriller that avoids a predictable outcome where the hero aims to get the bad guy and in the end does, Park uses color saturations, intentional grain, bright colors, and wild formal manipulation to match the feral nature of the story. Had the production any less oomph, the mise-en-scène would find itself desperate to catch up with the rapidly unraveling yarn. Finding equilibrium between method and story, Park instills purely emotional responses in his viewers. And as violent as his picture seems to be, he does not intend to exhaust the body through appalled reactions to the film’s sadism. He exhausts us emotionally, exposing us to a painful dramatic beating that stabs and twists the knife with the final scene.
Studying philosophy and dabbling in film criticism at Sogang University, only after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo did Park think twice about his intended plans for the future. Following the Hitchcockian model, the director finds unique balance between art and entertainment in Oldboy, embracing each concern equally. He weaves a story wrought with dramatic fire, which like Vertigo, mutates into something more perverse, more complicated, and yet more strangely evocative as the story advances. Both pictures embrace a protagonist, whose character is sympathetic yet disturbed, stripped of layer after layer until naked in body and soul. Park’s film boasts savage physical brutality to signify a more appalling psychological affliction, embracing the undeniable connection between mind and body, whereas Hitchcock’s film largely remained in his character’s psyche. Both films refuse to allow a straightforward viewing, as we are asked to reflect on and ultimately participate in completing the narrative through our own subjectivity.
When the credits roll, our feelings about Oh Dae-su’s decision are confused and traumatized into numbness, until, of course, we provide an answer for ourselves. Left with our uncertainties, Park allows the viewer to pass their own judgment. Does Oh Dae-su’s crooked smile in the last shot reflect a part of him not affected by the hypnosis? Or perhaps he is finally happy, blissfully unaware of the wrongness of his love for Mi-do, which has its own depraved implications. There’s no doubt that any answer comes with its own ugly spin, leaving the viewer in an uncomfortable position no matter what their outcome.
High attendance in South Korea brought Park profitable box-office receipts coupled by widespread critical acclaim, including the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Since his 2000 hit JSA: Joint Security Area, Park’s homeland has found his pictures relevant examples of entertainment with a purpose, and he remains South Korea’s most popular and likewise respected filmmaker. Whether to identify and undermine the conflict between North and South, or to simply press the buttons of censors, Park’s films retain incredible capacity for equal parts audience involvement and social commentary. But the lasting influence of the film remains its emotional impact. Along with the other films in Park Chan-wook’s thematic trilogy, Oldboy broods on the self-deprecating vanity of revenge, and presents the most terrible case of the three against the futility of vengeance. In each, Park challenges typical uses of explicit violence by using it symbolically in support of his unforgiving narratives. Often dismissed as gratuitous exploitation, critics of his approach cannot see passed the respective film’s aggressive surface to value how it heightens the wealth of the story. This is a mistake. His is a visceral brand of storytelling, told with rich visuals, impassioned functionality, and poetic purpose.