‘Oldboy’ is a brutal masterpiece
Directed by Park Chan-wook
Written by Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong, and Park Chan-wook
2005, South Korea
To mark the release of Stoker, Park Chan-wook’s first English language film, I watched his critically praised film Oldboy for the first time. Previous Sound On Sight reviews of Stoker point out the film’s subtle eeriness – in contrast to Park’s earlier provocative films – and emphasize the lack of Park’s signature ultraviolence and gore. Bracing for two hours of highly stylized sadism, I began the bloody and brutal South Korean revenge thriller.
Oldboy is a frenetic tale of a man mysteriously imprisoned for fifteen years and intent on carrying out fifteen years’ worth of revenge in five days. He embarks on a maniacal and methodical search to find the reason for his incarceration and bring his captors to justice. Consumed by his need for revenge, he ultimately discovers a man even more consumed with desire and considerably more diabolic.
The film opens with a confusing flash-forward scene in which a wild-haired Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) dangles another man from the top of a building. The short glimpse of Oh Dae-su cuts away almost immediately, and the film’s principal narrative begins with Oh, now drunk and railing, chained to the wall in a Seoul police station. Bailed out by his friend, Oh calls his daughter from a payphone to wish her a happy birthday, but Oh is taken captive as he stands aimlessly by the booth in the rain. What follows are glimpses of his life, imprisoned in a dank and shabby apartment-like cell, with no notion of the identity of his jailors or the motive for his imprisonment.
Oh’s only contact with the outside world is through his television, and it ultimately becomes his world. From this, he learns of his wife’s murder one year after his capture. His blood and fingerprints were found at the scene, and his daughter was adopted by a Swedish family. If he were to escape, Oh knows that he would be a wanted man. Despite his fraudulent police record, Oh spends years tunneling out of his cell, but he is miraculously released from his bizarre prison before his escape.
He is placed in a trunk atop a building – the same building from the first bewildering scene. Bursting from the trunk, he finds another man holding a tiny dog sitting on the edge of the roof. It is unclear whether this man was also a prisoner of Oh’s mysterious jailors, but what is clear is that he wants to end his life. Here, Park gives viewers a reason to question the reality of everything on screen.
Appearances can be deceptive, and in Oldboy, not everything is as it appears. What originally appeared to be Oh threateningly dangling a man by his tie was actually his attempt to save the man’s life.
A fugitive in a new world, Oh begins tracking out down his captors. This middle section of the film is extremely violent and, at times, draining to watch, but the physical violence is never purely for shock value. Rather, Oldboy’s scenes of mental and physical anguish make a statement and serve a purpose. Park himself makes a concerted effort to distance the violence, employing medium and long shots whenever possible. In the film’s big fight scene, Park’s camera tracks along parallel to the jail’s narrow corridor capturing the action in profile in one extended take. Even Oh, who perpetrates this violence, may not relish it.
While imprisoned for so many years, Oh grew dependent on his surroundings, in particular a terrifying painting of a smiling man. Underneath, it reads, “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.” Years of mental conditioning in his cell ultimately lead Oh to mimic this twisted grin whenever he is injured or experiencing emotional turmoil. As a result, it is difficult to determine whether Oh is enjoying the extreme violence in the film or if he is experiencing pure terror.
The film’s many twists and revelations and stylistic embellishments make it exceedingly watchable. Its brutality is certainly extreme but never strays into the grotesque. Rather, the film is a mental and visual assault on viewers, revealing what a revenge film can be in the hands of a director as artistic and masterful as Park Chan-wook.
– Katherine Springer