END OF CONFRONTATION, ONE MUST DIE.
Revenge is a dish best served cold. That seems to be the motto Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook lives by in his work. Oldboy is the second chapter in his world-famous revenge trilogy (the first film is Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)) and the one to gain the most attention, winning the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004; it’s a grand, near-operatic thriller, independent of the two other films in the series. The script is absolutely preposterous, but this is nevertheless a haunting slice of Asian cinema. If your stomach is up to the challenge, that is.
Choi Min-shik plays OhDae-su, a man who finds himself locked up in an apartment. Hours turn into days; days become weeks; weeks become months. He has no idea why this has happened to him and he can’t figure out who is responsible. As the years go by, Dae-su tries hard not to lose his mind in the apartment; a lot of time goes to exercising. Then, one day, 15 years have passed and Dae-su is released. He tries to adapt to life in the city… but then finds out from the man who locked him up, Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), that he has five days to figure out why he was locked up for 15 years. In a sushi bar, Dae-su meets a young woman, Mi-do (Kang Hye-Jeong), who takes care of him (she realizes something is wrong when he devours a live octopus and then passes out); they fall in love and do their best trying to uncover the truth behind Dae-su’s imprisonment.
Unfortunately, they don’t realize that the imprisonment itself was not the actual punishment; Dae-su is yet to suffer it.
Occasionally very disconcerting
Yes, there are surprises in this juicy tale; it takes a while before Park truly grabs one’s attention, but when he does you’re hooked. The revenge that awaits Dae-su is truly diabolical and clever, but should not be examined too closely; there are so many ways Woo-jin’s dastardly plan could have gone wrong. But it does show how genuinely insane with grief a person would have to be to come up with something like this, to have the mind and patience to wait for 15 years before destroying another man’s life. Woo-jin has good reason to hate Dae-su, but our sympathy still lies with the main character. Choi shows us convincingly how Dae-su suffers in his prison and how those 15 years have taken a toll on him. He also handles himself quite well in the fight scenes. They are very well choreographed, not least the exhausting sequence where he fights a whole gang in a narrow corridor; that scene also gives the director a great chance to make use of the widescreen format.
It’s a brutal, violent and occasionally very disconcerting film, but that darkness is offset by a certain sense of humor as well as the beauty of the memorable music score, and the cinematography and its colors; the director keeps a neat balance between the gritty and the pretty.
There’s immense tragedy in this story about forbidden love and the sin of being unable to forgive and move on. The crime that sparks the revenge may be simple, but the consequences are extreme and so are the emotions involved; diplomatic solutions do not exist. In the end, Park offers redemption and peace for Oh Dae-su, but there are no truly happy endings for anyone here, only release from the horrible lives they lead on this planet.
Oldboy 2003-South Korea. 120 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Lim Seung-yong. Directed by Park Chan-wook. Screenplay: Hwang Jo-yoon, Im Joon-hyeong, Park Chan-wook. Cinematography: Jeong Jeong-hun. Music: Jo Yeong-wook. Cast: Choi Min-shik (Oh Dae-su), Yu Ji-tae (Lee Woo-jin), Kang Hye-Jeong (Mi-do), Ji Dae-han, Oh Dal-su, Kim Byeong-ok.
Last word: “My films are not as explicit as you might think. There is a misconception that people somehow seem to claim that they have seen the image where the main character cuts off his own tongue in ‘Oldboy’. Or they seem to remember seeing children go through the process of being killed on-screen in ‘Lady Vengeance’. Or they would say that they have seen the main character take the tooth out of one of the bad guys in ‘Oldboy’. But that is not true. They’re actually not seen on-screen. These are referred to, anticipated, and talked about, but not actually portrayed explicitly on film. So I feel a little bit put-upon when people say these things. […] The thing about it is the things I want to deal with in my films, in any case, is this violent relationship between individuals and this sense of wrongdoing, or this sense that this is a sin, and the process of redemption related to that.” (Park, A.V. Club)