The New Cult Canon: Oldboy

The New Cult Canon: Oldboy

"Seeking revenge is the best cure for someone who has been hurt. The loss of 15 years, the pain of losing your wife and child—all this can be forgotten. Revenge is good for your health, but what happens after you've had your revenge? I bet that hidden pain probably emerges again." —Yoo Ji-Tae, Oldboy

Korean director Park Chan-wook's 2003 opus Oldboy—the second in a trilogy bookended by 2002's Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance and 2005's Lady Vengeance—is an ultra-super-mega revenge movie, as extravagantly ornate as the subgenre has ever been conceived. (It's only natural that Quentin Tarantino, in the middle of prepping his own revenge epic Kill Bill, would be head of the Cannes jury that awarded it the Grand Jury Prize. He reportedly advocated for it to win over the politicized Palme D'Or-winner Fahrenheit 9/11, which seems in retrospect like an embarrassingly shortsighted choice.) Oldboy isn't the easiest movie to defend, because its considerable ambitions are masked by an over-the-top stylization that appeals more to Asia Extreme fanboys than buttoned-down cineastes.

Yet there's more to Oldboy than meets the eye. Or at least as much as meets the eye, anyway. It's opera. It's Greek tragedy. Of the films in Park's trilogy, it best expresses the delicious satisfaction of revenge and the hollowness of it, too, as the fulfillment of planning and executing gives way to a devastating hangover once it's accomplished. In Park's view, when men carry revenge in their hearts, there's no room for anything else; where another person might respond to loss through reflection and mourning, a vigilante suffers from tragic, all-consuming myopia. The fact that the grand scheme in Oldboy is so ridiculously elaborate makes it all the more powerful: It would one thing for a wronged man just to stab his foe in a dark alley, but a plan that unfolds over 15-plus years, at absurd expense and intricacy, raises the dramatic stakes considerably. The mood is so heightened that it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

(Note: It's at this point that I'd advise those who haven't seen the film to take leave. There's no way I can discuss it without getting into spoiler territory and it's best to know as little about the story as possible going in.)

In a full-barreled performance that ranges from giddy to feral to heartbreakingly desperate and exposed, Choi Min-Sik stars as Dae-su, an ordinary Seoul businessman who's first shown detained by the police after a hard night of drinking. His friend Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) bails him out, but shortly thereafter, Dae-su simply disappears into the night and isn't heard from again. The next time we see Dae-su, he's locked up in a sparsely furnished studio apartment with a twin bed, an exposed bathroom, a TV to mark the time and keep him company, and not much else. Food comes through a slot under the steel door, and it's always the same: Fried pot stickers and deliverymen who are deaf to his pleadings. Once in a while, a little music kicks in, the room fills up with gas, and he doesn't know what's being done to him while he's blacked out.

Who has locked him up and why? He doesn't know, but in the meantime, he staves off madness by sculpting his body (his knuckles are scarred from the punching the walls) and chipping away at the outside wall with an errant chopstick. The years pass and suddenly and without comment, he's released after 15 years in confinement. ("After 11 years," he says later, "it felt like home.") Though he's stuck on the question of why he was locked up, the scarier question may be why he was set free. When an anonymous stranger supplies him with a cell phone and a wallet full of cash, the game is officially afoot. Dae-su's only ally is Mi-do (Gang Hye-Jung), an attractive young sushi chef who experiences a spark of recognition in meeting him and takes him back to her apartment.

Park keeps the audience in the dark, too, so we're just as confused and uneasy as Dae-su. When the perpetrator is finally revealed to be Lee Woo-jim (Yoo Ji-Tae), an eerily implacable rich guy who resides in an ultra-modern penthouse overlooking the city, we slowly get an idea of how far he's gone to turns the screws on Dae-su. Just a quick itemization of what he's done: Kidnapped Dae-su and kept him in confinement for 15 years, an operation that involved numerous deliverymen, henchman, and a hypnotist; killed Dae-su's wife and pinned the murder on him; manipulated Dae-su's daughter, also through a hypnotist, to where she would be receptive to him and wind up sleeping with him; and tracked them both inside and outside through heavy surveillance including bugs, cameras, and online chatrooms. At no point in 15 years does Dae-su go unwatched by Woo-jim ("I'm a scholar and what I study is you") and at no point in 15 years does he really have control over his own fate, even once he's on the outside.

The tragedy of Dae-su's situation is that the punishment doesn't remotely fit the crime. He spends a lot of time in confinement writing down the many people he's wronged over the years—mostly the husbands of women he's bedded—but his life turns on a minor indiscretion that had escaped his memory. While in high school, he witnessed Woo-jim sneak away for incestuous tryst with his sister and let that piece of gossip slip to a fellow student, as anyone his age would. The rumors hastened the sister's suicide, but from what we witness, her despair is plainly evident and may well have led to the same result without young Dae-su's intervention. Dae-su suffers blowback of Oedipal proportions, yet it's Woo-jim's guilt and shame that drive his psychotic actions. Why else, other than a flair for poetic justice, would Woo-jim manipulate Dae-su into an incestuous relationship of his own? He wants their stories to dovetail, if only so somebody else will understand his pain.

Park's style is ostentatious to say the least—and yes, a little show-offy at times—but can you imagine what Oldboy would have looked like if, say, Sidney Lumet had directed it? Austerity would be the death of a story this outrageous; Park instead achieves the heightened theatrics of an opera, mainly by finding expressive ways for the camera and the music to complement the emotions. Back when it was first released, I wrote: "It's hard to make an argument for Oldboy based on anything other than pure cinematics, but when the style speaks this loudly, it's an argument worth making." Having seen it a few times since, I'll confess that I underestimated it back then, or at least failed to acknowledge the extent to which the Park's visual panache served more than just itself. And yet, in the immortal words of a certain baggy-pants-wearing MC…

Stop! Hammer time:

Oldboy belongs squarely in the "Cinema Of Cool," a term I introduced early on in this column to describe cult movies in which style points matter, as does the sheer sensual pleasure that certain films have to offer. On some level, I can understand those who dismiss Park's work as tarted-up juvenilia, because his style is deliberately over-the-top and garish, and he tends to trade heavily in violence and shock value. For every viewer wowed by the scene where Dae-su consumes a live octopus—in my view, an appropriate choice for a guy who's been rotting away eating stale pot stickers for 15 years—there are probably several more who are utterly repulsed. (Count the actor, Choi Min-sik, among them. A Buddhist, he reportedly said a prayer for each of the four octopuses he consumed.) But whether or not you've wowed by Park's florid touch, I think form unquestionably matches content here.

Since many of you have seen Oldboy already—it's currently ranked #114 on the IMDb's Top 250—I'd like to end by throwing one to the gallery. Specifically, what do you make of the ending? If you'll recall, Dae-su has convinced a hypnotist—the same woman who tinkered with his and Mi-do's head—to wipe his head clean of the dreadful secret that haunts his conscience. The treatment seems to work, as the part of him that knows his secret has died peacefully. The final scene (shown below) has he and Mi-do meeting in a snowy forest. The two embrace, and in the last shot, we see Choi's face transform from joy and relief to an expression that's a lot more ambiguous. Does this mean that his memory hasn't been erased or is it more of a Graduate moment, when happiness morphs into a kind of uncertainty? What say you?

Coming Up:

Next week: Gerry

Oct. 16: Irréversible

Oct. 23: Office Space

Oct. 30: Rounders

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