The drunken man is chained to the wall of the police station, waving a picture of his wife and child, donning the goofy angel wings he bought for his little girl as a birthday gift. His name is Dae-su Oh, which he tells us means “getting along with others”—something he has definitely not been doing, since he was hauled in for groping someone else’s girl and starting a fight. His long-suffering friend, all too used to Dae-su’s philandering, comes to bail him out. Outside, the friend steps into a phone booth to call Dae-su’s wife, and in that moment Dae-su simply vanishes.
He is not dead—instead, we see that Dae-su has been spirited away and locked up in a strange little prison that resembles a grubby hotel room. He has a bed, shower, table, dresser, kitschy art and TV, but no phone and no knob on the door. He has no contact with his captors, who simply open a slot and shove in take-out Chinese food once a day. Every now and then they gas him, change his clothes, cut his hair, and redecorate the room. He will be in this room, as Dae-su tells us on the soundtrack, for the next fifteen years of his life, and will emerge as hardened and fanatically disciplined man bent on revenge.
Oldboy starts with this thriller setup—one Hitchcock would have been proud of— but before long it stops being a “mere” thriller and goes into the realm of something like a philosophical statement. It is not about who kidnapped Dae-su—we learn that soon enough—but about what it means to everyone involved. Watch the film at least twice, and after the first time you can look past the immediate secrets of the plot (which is essentially a postmodern reworking of The Count of Monte Cristo) and into the film’s real story, which is as challenging and daring as any film ever made.
First, the thriller. There is of course at first no explanation for why Dae-su has been penned up like this. Weeks of shouting through the food slot and pleading with his captors turn into months of apathy and stupefied TV-watching. From the TV he learns that his wife has been killed, that his child has been given up for adoption, and that he is the prime suspect in his wife’s murder. He slides into madness. He attempts suicide, twice—and each time his minders simply gas him and patch him back up again.
Months turn into years. Dae-su begins to discipline himself. He keeps a prison diary, into which he pours the whole of his life in an attempt to figure out who would hate him enough to bury him like this. He traces the outline of a man on the wall and boxes with imaginary enemies, wrapping his fists in towels and punching until the walls are bruised and calluses form on his knuckles. When a spare metal chopstick ends up in his meal tray, he conceals it and uses it to start loosening bricks in the wall behind his bed.
And then one day, again without preamble or explanation, he’s set free again—blinking and shuddering under the noonday sun on top of a building somewhere. With his prison diaries in a duffel bag and a change of elegant clothes on his back, he marches back out into the world to find his tormentors and pay them back. Nothing else exists in his life—not his family, certainly, or his job, or any of his old friends. The only person he forms any kind of connection with is a girl at the sushi restaurant, Mi-do, who takes him in after he collapses in front of her with a case of the flu. She reads his diaries and is inclined to believe he really did suffer like this, although there are strong hints that she is probably just lonely and looking for any excuse to be with someone.
Dae-su’s tormentor doesn’t take long to reveal himself. His name is Woo-Jin Lee, and he is as tall, handsome and suave as Dae-su is gnarled and worn. Lee is wealthy and powerful, and has used his money and his influence to cage up Dae-su, destroy his life, and now send him back out into the world in search of answers. “I’m a scholar,” he tells Dae-su, “and what I study is you. In the fifteen years you were locked up, I was never bored or lonely.” Lee proposes a game: If Dae-su can piece together why this has been done to him in five days, he will kill himself. If Dae-su fails, someone else will die, and as Lee points out, Dae-su has a long and ugly history of not protecting his women.
The film operates most of the time as a noir entertainment, and there are several sequences that are masterfully and deliberately designed in that vein. One of the most bravura moments is a single unbroken shot where Dae-su takes on something like twenty men at once in a narrow corridor, but the very way the scene is constructed adds meaning. First, Park locks the camera down so that it only moves from side to side, forcing Dae-su to fight from one side of the screen to the other—an effective visual metaphor for his struggle towards freedom. Second, Dae-su eschews a knife (presumably a more effective weapon against the guards) in favor of the clawhammer. Why? So that he can prolong the experience for his tormentors. He wants them to suffer as he has suffered; letting them off by killing them would be a luxury. If he was not permitted to die, neither should they.
Touches like this don’t come to most people the first time they see the film. As with Blade Runner or Gojoe, they’re too stunned by the movie on a bare visceral level (or too offended by it) to see that does indeed add up on many other levels. One of the most ugly and openly prejudicial reviews of the film was courtesy of Manhola Darges in the New York Times; she explicitly denied the film could work on any level other than that of cheapie 42nd St. fleapit cinema. Never mind that a great many now-classic movies were dumped into grindhouses by uncaring distributors (Mad Max comes to mind), or were too uncompromising for their times (Shock Corridor, Peeping Tom) and dismissed as lurid trash.
That Oldboy contains a good deal of savage black humor alongside its existential horrors, and that most audiences are not used to this sort of cunning and deliberate emotional gearshifting, probably didn’t help. The very first shots in the film give us a moment of potential violence, but shown out of context, so that we are not sure who is doing what to whom or why. Almost twenty minutes later we return to that very moment, albeit in context, and then there’s a final twist that is both horrible and funny at the same time. If this was simply the director showing off, that would be one thing, but the same issue of context winds up applying to one of the film’s central mysteries, too. What is writ small throughout the movie is also writ large.
There are other scenes, equally violent or jarring, that seem deliberately designed to test an audience’s endurance. In one which is guaranteed to give nightmares to anyone who has had dental work, Dae-su trusses up one of his jailers and tears out the man’s teeth with the aforementioned clawhammer—one tooth for each year. In another scene, one many people have not applauded, he devours a live squid—not out of mere sadism, but because this way he can prove to himself that he is alive when he has not felt that way for decades on end. People find the violence in Oldboy distressing or abhorrent, I suspect, because it is not committed on disposable targets as it is in so many dim-witted Hollywood shooting-gallery films. Because the film is about empathy, about making someone else feel what you have felt, it is not simply rubbing our faces in mayhem.
This is, I think, one of the main reasons why Dae-su and Mi-do wind up being drawn to each other: they understand each other in an unspoken way. Mi-do is young and lonely, still a virgin, and for a long time has wanted someone to simply come into her life and want her. She has a speech, by turns crass and hilarious and touching, where she describes this to Dae-su, and it is made all the more blackly funny by the fact that he has just tried to (incompetently) sexually assault her. What angers her most is not the fact that he tried to do this—he has, after all, been locked up for years without even the presence of another human being—but that she couldn’t simply say yes to him.
A good deal of the film’s strength comes from its three key performances. Min-sik Choi, as Dae-su, came first to my attention in Shiri, then Failan and Chihwaseon, and in the time since I haven’t seen a finer actor, Korean or otherwise, at work right now. He plays Dae-su in a way that critics typically label “courageous”—in short, he embodies the role, in a way that earns comparison with Western actors like David Thewlis or Gary Oldman. There is also Ji-tae Yu, as Lee (from the social-commentary slapstick comedy Attack the Gas Station), smiling boyishly as his plans unfold and then weeping impotently when they are concluded. And I had seen Hye-jeong Kang (Mi-do) before, in the curious quasi-SF Nabi, where she played a girl in search of a redemption that eerily parallels what Dae-su chooses in this film.
Chan-wook Park, the director, first came to my attention through Oldboy’s predecessor, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, also about the nihilism of revenge but in a completely different vein. Oldboy is stylistically quite unlike Vengeance—it’s more absorbing and less glacially removed—but that fits, since it is about being forced to share a state of mind. Park surrounds his characters with environments that hem them in, like the mind-numbing wallpaper in Dae-su’s cell, and uses totemistic objects—a pattern on a handkerchief, the angel’s wings—to further invest their scenes with foreboding power. And where Vengeance had virtually no music, Oldboy uses a grand, heavily thematic score to great effect. (The composer, Yeong-wook Jo, also scored Park’s JSA and Lady Vengeance, Oldboy’s successor film.)
Oldboy’s climax has been derided as being manipulative and closed-ended, and there are things I myself protested about it. Then I realized that the fact that the plot is closed-ended—that Dae-su has been manipulated and toyed with in cruelly unfair ways—is one of the film’s very themes. Both Dae-su and Lee are helpless to their passions, and Lee, the engineer of Dae-su’s suffering, is in his own way just as much of a prisoner as his victim. He lives in a penthouse apartment that doubles as his office from which he surveys the world (and Dae-su’s progress on his quest), and obsesses over a hurt so deep and fundamental that no act of revenge for him could possibly absolve it. What he engineers, then, is not simply a form of revenge, but a form of empathy.
What Oldboy is ultimately about, I think, is best encapsulated for me in a comment someone else made that will not make sense until you have actually seen the film and can mull it over: Is ignorance itself a sin, and if so, what is the redemption for such a sin, wisdom or a new kind of ignorance? At one point Lee taunts Dae-su, “How’s life in a bigger prison?” and it isn’t until the very end that we—and Dae-su, too—realize what he truly meant.
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