Every now and then we get some real tonal whiplash here on Cinematic Century. It makes sense, it’s not like my tastes are completely uniform, and I only like one type of movies, but it can also be a littler jarring, both for the reader and for me as I revisit these films. Last year we talked about some pure Spielberg cinematic magic with Catch Me If You Can, a fun little lighthearted caper. And we’re following that up with one of the more unnerving and upsetting films of all time, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. And folks, it remains and hell of a rough sit, even though this was maybe my fifth time going through it. But, I felt confident enough to pick it as my favorite film of 2003, hwich actually ended up being a pretty stacked year. The most obvious candidate is probably Kill Bill vol. 1, which sadly falls into the same trap that the Lord of the Rings movies do, where I really and truly feel like it’s actually one movie split up for commercial reasons, and as a result it’s hard for it to compete since it’s actually only half of a movie. I love Kill Bill as a whole, but I actually tend to like Vol. 2 more, so it just didn’t feel right to discuss Vol. 1. And, speaking of which, sorry Return of the King. We also could have talked about existential dread and mid-life crises with the absolutely phenomenal Lost in Translation, which I really do love quite a bit. Or hey, although its legacy is certainly rough, I do still really enjoy the rollicking action of the Pirates of the Caribbean. I’ve also always been a big sucker for School of Rock, showing that even at his most commercial Richard Linklater can still make a hell of a movie. Or we could have stayed equally bleak with another South Korean flick, Memories of Murder, which is also a pretty rough sit. But, when it came time to actually choose, I had to go with Oldboy, in all of it’s weird, squid-eating glory.
I usually like to spend a little time at this point in these Cinematic Century articles talking a little about the making of the film, but I actually ended up having a somewhat rough time finding decent information about the making of Oldboy. So, I’ll do my best with what I could figure out. The film is actually loosely based off a Japanese manga of the same name, which also features a man being imprisoned for years for seemingly no reason before being mysteriously released and set down a path to find his captors. The manga then swerves quite a bit, not featuring most of Oldboy’s trademark twists, but that basic plot device was enough to interest Park Chan-wook, who was at the time in the middle of a fascination with the idea of vengeance, eventually creating a three-film run of movies that specifically tried to grapple with revenge. Chan-wook then got to work on the film, tying in quite a bit of Oedipal mythology to bring his version of the story to life, which almost entirely rests on the shoulders of actor Choi Min-sik, who went though quite a bit to make this film, including eating four live octopuses. But, it all paid off, because Oldboy was immediately recognized as something very special. It ended up winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, their second highest honor, largely thanks to the cheerleading of Quentin Tarantino, who loved the film, and has since garnered a reputation as one of the best films of the 2000’s. And, it’s easy to see why, because this is an incredibly unique and fascinating film.
Oldboy is the story of Oh Dae-su, a brash, drunken lout who is abducted one fateful night after causing quite a scene and getting arrested on his way to his daughter’s birthday party. He doesn’t know who has taken him, but he’s dragged to what appears to be an unofficial prison, more or less looking like a hotel room where he’s trapped in solitary confinement, with nothing but a non-stop television for company. And through this he learns that his wife has been murdered, and he has been framed for the deed. Dae-su has no idea why he’s been imprisoned, and is forced to survive in that cell for fifteen whole years, until one day he’s suddenly knocked out, dressed up in a suit, and placed in a coffin atop an apartment complex that has been built over the location he was first abducted. Dae-su has no idea what has happened, where he is, or what’s going on, but he knows one thing. He has to find the people who did this to him, and make them pay. Unfortunately, he has no idea at where he should begin with that. So, he ends up wandering the city, gawking at the changes that have occurred, when a mysterious man arrives and gives him a phone and some money. Dae-su then decides that he needs something to eat, and ends up at a sushi restaurant where he chats with the young woman working there, before passing out after getting a call from his captor, taunting him. And, when Dae-su wakes up he finds that he’s in the home of the young woman, Mi-do, who has brought Dae-su home with her because she finds him fascinating. And, with her help, Dae-su begins trying to find his daughter and the people who imprisoned him.
They quickly find that his daughter was adopted and sent to Switzerland, so Dae-su decides that she’s better off without him, and focuses on finding his captors. Which, he eventually does by tracking down the specific restaurant that made the greasy fried dumplings that he was forced to eat for fifteen years. He then makes his way back to the prison, where he meets the man who runs it, Mr. Park, and tortures him into giving Dae-su some information. He doesn’t have much, other than the fact that Dae-su was imprisoned because “he talked too much.” He then fights his way out of the prison, wounding several of Park’s men, and making his way back to Mi-do’s apartment. Which is when Dae-su learns that his captor has been stalking Mi-do as well, and leads Dae-su right to him to give him a proposition. It turns out that his captor is a rich man named Lee Woo-jin, and he has a proposition for Dae-su. If he can figure out why he was imprisoned in five days he’ll kill himself. And if he doesn’t, he’ll kill Mi-do. So, Dae-su now has a time-table, and he and Mi-do begin hunting down the mystery much faster, and in the process they fall in love, eventually sleeping together. And, after running into an old friend of Dae-su’s they finally make a break when Dae-su realizes that he actually does know Woo-jin. They went to school together, and his sister killed herself.
And, with that realization, Dae-su starts to really remember. It turns out that he witnessed Woo-jin and his sister committing incest, and began telling everyone, leading to the rumor spreading and the sister killing herself, thus proving why he has been imprisoned. So, Dae-su decides to confront Woo-jin, but first he needs to ensure that Mi-do is safe. He places her at another prison operated by Mr. Park, who in the meantime has been brutalized by Woo-jin, and who is now on their side to take him down. Dae-su then heads out to confront Woo-jin, fighting through his men in order to fight him. But, when Dae-su finally gets to Woo-jin, the villain explains everything to him. It turns out that he didn’t just imprison Dae-su, he wove a whole web of revenge. Including hypnotizing Mi-do, who is in actuality Dae-su’s daughter, meaning he has also now committed incest. And, what’s more, it turns out that Mr. Park has not switched sides, and is actually working with Woo-jin still, meaning that Woo-jin is planning on revealing the truth to Mi-do. Dae-su flips out at this point, and begs Woo-jin not to go through with it, even going so far as to cutting off his own tongue to ensure he will never tell anyone what has really happened. And, this is enough for Woo-jin, who calls off the revelation, and then kills himself. But, it leaves Dae-su with the knowledge of what has really happened. So, he sets out and finds the hypnotist that Woo-jin has used in the past, asking her to make him forget what he has done so that he can try to live his life. And, the film ends up Dae-su being reunited with Mi-do, unsure if the hypnotism really worked or not.
The first time I saw Oldboy I was well aware of the stature that it had gained since it was released. It had become a famously insane movie, not for the faint of heart, a real endurance test of bizarre film-making. And, then I saw it and realized that, while it’s a little strange, it’s really just a fun, twisted little noir. I guess the squid-eating and incest was what was putting people off, and I guess that’s fair, but what drew me into the film, and what has kept me coming back, is just the fantastic film-making on display here. South Korean crime films are kind of a breed of their own, and Oldboy is the perfect example of them to me. It’s a straight forward enough plot, man tracks down a mysterious villain who seems hell-bent on destroying him, but it just adds so many completely bizarre elements that keep you from really getting ahead of it. It’s a movie really unlike any other, while also featuring enough familiar elements to keep you from becoming completely unmoored in it’s otherworldly atmosphere, just keeping you grounded enough to enjoy the weird ride. And so much of that is thanks to the performances from Choi Min-sik and Kang Hye-jung, who play Dae-su and Mi-do respectively. I have to assume that this is a tough script to bring to life, and it requires quite a bit from its leads, but both of them absolutely knock it out of the park, creating characters who feel familiar enough to hold onto, even though what they’re doing is completely outside the average person’s understanding.
Unless of course you’re just talking about the idea of revenge. Oldboy is usually considered an entry in an unofficial trilogy of films by Park Chan-wook known as the Vengeance Trilogy. Which, when you put aside all of the weirder elements, is really all the film is about. It’s about revenge, the desire to get it, and the idea that it’s never going to be as satisfying as you want it to be. Humans are very spiteful creatures, and it seems like we’re all at least drawn to the notion of revenge. Few people actually seek it out, especially to the ridiculous extremes of this film, but it’s a fairly common bit of daydreaming. The idea of getting revenge for some petty slight, some moment of social impropriety that you maybe took way further than it needed to be. And yet, films like Oldboy remind us that revenge is, as best, a Pyrrhic victory. Woo-jin literally has built his entire life around getting revenge on Dae-su, for something that Dae-su doesn’t even remember he did. And, all it brings Woo-jin is further misery. He utterly destroys Dae-su, and realizes that even that isn’t enough to make him happy. And Dae-su spends the entire film looking to get revenge on his captors, only finding personal horror waiting for him behind every answer. Because that’s all revenge is. It’s a vicious cycle, one where as soon as you get your perceived comeuppance all you’ve actually done is set someone else down a path to get revenge on you.
Oldboy was written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Jun-hyung, and Park Chan-wook, directed by Park Chan-wook, and released by Show East, 2003.
Categories: Cinematic Century