“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.” – Oh Dae-Su
The first time I saw it I was so awestruck, in such disbelief, that I thought maybe I was the one that was seeing something more perverse than was actually there. Oldboy (2005, South Korea) had me staggering out of the theater then had me questioning myself, “Did I really see what I thought I just saw?” What was there, after my senses were settled, was a revenge thriller with taboo-breaking content that I feel had never been tried before. Well, maybe elsewhere in Asian Extreme cinema, but never done with such soul-shattering power.
It what was the original shocking, transgressive and transcendent thriller by Chan-Wook Park (“Joint Security Area” is his most normal movie), a man is locked in what feels like a crummy third-rate hotel room that will become his chamber for the next 15 years. He has a bed, a TV, a shower, a dresser, a pen and paper, and other miniscule furnishings, and little else to keep him from growing crazy. He will box to stay in shape, he will punch the walls to adapt his pain threshold. He learns of the changes of history from his only ally, the television, but learns from TV news that his wife was murdered and he was framed for it. Occasionally the room is gassed, he gets haircuts and manicures from strange men in masks, and maybe is hypnotized to digest certain intellectual information.
Set free without explanation, the revenge is to find the man who made him his prisoner for all those years, and to find out why. This man, who was once a family man and belligerent drunkard named Oh Dae-Su, is a free man after all these years. He was at the time an old-boy – a completely irresponsible big-talking louse of a person. He is sober now, sharper, but is he really free on the outside? The mastermind behind the plot, whom I will not mention, is revealed to be still toying with his long-term subject when Oldboy is on the outside. “I’m sort of a scholar, and what I study is you,” he says. Can Oldboy put a bullet in this sick man’s head before he gets an explanation as to why he was captive?
At a sushi restaurant, Oh Dae-Su meets young chef Mido (Gang Hye-Jung) who takes a liking to him and joins him on his detective quest. Something poignant draws us into Mido, she’s the girl who is as compulsive about doing the right thing and appeasing a man who is in anguished need. She is a caregiver, as if she were conditioned to be that way, loving the volatile Oh Dae-Su a little too close and intimately. Mido might seem like a girl sidekick gimmick to serve the protagonist with convenient companionship, but she proves to be more – a perfect component to add to the film’s overall pattern of tragedy. Here is a film with an arrangement of plot and character that is nothing short of storytelling genius.
Oh Dae-Su is played by the esteemed method actor Choi Min-Sik whom I have often referred to as the Korean Robert DeNiro. He played a serial killer in the merciless “I Saw the Devil” (2011), a struggling artist in 19th century Korea who begins drawing pornography before becoming a celebrated painter in “Chi-Hwa-Seon: Painted Fire” (2003), and he was a shunned married man who must murder his wife to secure a better future in the downbeat but compelling “Happy End” (2001). In this film, Min-Sik eats a live octopus on film (the explanation why he does it makes considerable sense when you hear it), but mostly you empathize with the inner rage that drives him on his revenge mission. After all these years, he is driven more by hate than love. But love and compassion remain inherently deep within him. Oldboy gets his nemesis in his clutches at the end, but it’s actually his conscience that informs him that the tables have actually been turned on him.
With scenes of Oldboy smashing heads with a hammer in a bravura one-shot fight sequence, non-anesthesia tooth-pulling, the cutting out of one’s own tongue, incestuous sex, close-up suicide and other forms of implied sadomasochism, this is a weird, wild, and perverse film experience. This film was also part of director Park’s revenge trilogy that included 2003’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (my grade: B+) and 2005’s “Lady Vengeance” (my grade: A-). “Oldboy” remains the biggest Korean cult film in America, probably because anybody who sees it never forgets it and its reputation carries on.
119 Minutes. Rated R.
PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR / BLOODLUST / WEIRD MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “The Vanishing” (1988, Denmark); “Audition” (1999, Japan); “The Secret in their Eyes” (2010, Argentina); “Oldboy” (2013).