When my fellow reviewer Michael Bartholow looked at the first two volumes of the Oldboy manga, he gave it fairly low marks but admitted that it was mostly due to the movie just being far more to his taste. I understand exactly what he meant: I thought the movie of Oldboy was one of the single best movies I’d ever seen, and anything was likely to pale in comparison to it. But I was also prepared to forgive a great deal, and I was deeply curious about what the original story had been before director Park Chan-wook used it as only the barest inspiration for his existential gut-puncher.
There’s a lot that’s different about Oldboy the manga, not just the story. It’s a more deliberately-paced story, one where each little step in the plot is savored and chewed over at length, and it stays focused on a relatively small cast of people with smoldering intensity. Compare this to another thriller that I’m currently burning though, Monster, where we’re practically grabbed by our lapels and flung headfirst through the story, which encompasses a broad gallery of characters and hops frenetically from location to location. I prefer Monster’s approach, but there’s nothing wrong, strictly speaking, with Oldboy; it’s just a different story, differently told, and one that appeals to different tastes.
The first chapter of volume three actually opens with a moment that was recycled almost intact for the film: a derelict approaches Goto and swaps him his now-extracted tracking device for a cell phone. “Push #1 on speed-dial and you can talk to you-know-who any time you like.” You-know-who is none other than Goto’s tormentor, who offers him the possibility to see him face-to-face at last. Or he can throw away the phone, cut the only existing connection he has to the mystery man, and leave behind the “why” of his kidnapping forever. To that end, Goto gambles on the possibility that his enemy is more obsessed with him than he is with the other man … and dumps the phone in front of a moving truck. Set and match.A great deal of the “action” in Oldboy is paced like that. It’s not the raw-knuckled mayhem of a street fight, but the cold precision of a chess match where you can’t even see the other player’s moves at first. His enemies are using his weaknesses against him, and the only weapon he has is to do the same thing. He immerses himself in the gangster underworld and hits what looks like a solid lead — but it’s only a manufactured dead end. That leads him into one of the bizarrest scenes in the whole story so far, where he encounters a woman, another of their people, who’ll only divulge information about her puppet-masters if Goto can give her an orgasm. Talk about sexual blackmail.