Oldboy (South Korea, 2003) [NYAFF 2012]

The second installment of Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, Oldboy is based on the manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya, which I have read.

The movie tells the story of Oh Dae-su (played brilliantly by Choi Min-sik), a man who was inexplicably grabbed off of the street one night and locked in a room for fifteen years.  He spends that time watching television, working out, and teaching himself to fight.  He has also been thinking about revenge and paying attention to what’s going on around him.  After those fifteen years, he is just as suddenly and inexplicably released.  He awakens on the street dressed in a suit with money and a cell phone in his pockets.  One of the first things Oh does is get drunk.  Then he starts eating dumplings….the very same thing he was fed every day for fifteen years.  He meets a young girl who takes pity on him and brings him home with her to get some sleep.  He explains to her what happened to him and that he’s eating dumplings at all different places because he remembers the taste; when he finds the right dumplings he’ll be on his way to finding his captors.  The girl, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) continues to let Oh stay with her and she eventually falls in love with him—though he insists their arrangement is only temporary.  Oh eventually finds his dumplings and his captors. 

After one of the coolest fight sequences I’ve ever seen in a movie—Oh takes on twenty guys with just a hammer—he finds out that someone paid to have him imprisoned.  Lee Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), the man with an apparent grudge, knows Oh is looking for him so Lee goes to him.  Oh would like nothing more than to kill Lee, but Lee teases him with the reason for the grudge he harbors.  Oh goes to the one person from his past that he felt he could make contact with and he tells Oh about their high school years with Lee.  Lee Woo-jin blames Oh Dae-su for his sister’s death and so has him locked up as part of his revenge.  Lee doesn’t want to stop there, though.  He tells Oh something about Mi-do, whom Oh has fallen in love with, which is so devastating that he’ll do anything to keep Lee from telling anyone else.  Of course Lee wants to tell Mi-do and completely destroy whatever is left of Oh’s life.  Lee is ruthless, but he is so blinded by hatred that he can’t see his own role in what happened to his sister.

The end of the film is intentionally ambiguous.  Oh seeks out help to put his life back in order but did he actually receive the help he was looking for?  Has Oh Dae-su made peace with the circumstances of the last fifteen years?  Park leaves it up to the viewer to decide the fate of Oh Dae-su and Mi-do.  I have already decided my take on the end of the film, but I leave it up to you to decide for yourself what happens in this very twisted drama.

Oldboy is a complex film that plays out without emotion.  Park himself gives no sympathy or empathy toward the characters themselves.  He tells the story in all of its stark detail, leaving it up to the viewer to decide where their sympathies lie.  While the story is full of shocking revelations, the film itself was not made for shock value.  It is a harsh look at humanity in all of its bitterness and hope.

What I really enjoy about Oldboy is that it has the most involved plot of the Vengeance Trilogy.  There is a lot going on with the mob that runs the private prison, Oh Dae-su and his single-mindedness for vengeance, how his relationship develops with Mi-do, Lee Woo-jin and his almost rabid need for revenge, and the past as it really happened.  Just as in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), all of the main characters share very real similarities.  They each had something precious taken from them and they each thought only of getting revenge. What makes Oldboy stand out is the need for vengeance on the part of both Lee, who is living with blinders on and cannot see that he is partly to blame for the destruction of his young life and the unnecessary altering of the lives of others, and Oh who after fifteen years knows nothing else.  The acting is superb, as is Park’s direction; and the cinematography by Chung Chung-hoon is beautiful and brilliant.

While I can’t speak on the possible politics playing out in Park Chan-wook’s film, I can say that the graphic sexuality and bloodthirsty violence are necessary to understand the full impact of the story on the lives of those involved.  Oldboy is not a film for those with weak stomachs.  It is gritty and unflinching and happens to be one of my favorite films of all time.  Enjoy it with an open mind.  The film will be screening at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival with star Choi Min-sik in attendance.