Oldboy (2003). There is a certain level of trauma one has to endure, a particular anguish that is wholly necessary for one to develop a thirst for revenge. Imagined slights are never enough to justify an embark towards righteous retribution, nor are the scornful abuses that one may encounter in life enough to make the offender who has offended pay, and pay dearly. Someone’s entire way of being, with all the knowledge and the confidence and the security that goes with it, has to be utterly destroyed, leaving a hollow vessel behind to recoup the shattered remains. There is a distinct kind of heartbreak necessary for vengeance, and it appears South Korean director Park Chan-Wook has become something of a proxy authority on the subject. As the man at the helm for three films that ultimately became The Vengeance Trilogy (Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy For Lady Vengeance), Chan-Wook has exhibited an innate ability to weave tales of agony, perseverance, and punishment in a masterful and potent way. Perhaps the filmmaker has some pertinent stories of a personal nature to impart – that we may never know – but it’s telling of a director who writes and directs films with titles such as Thirst, Stoker, and Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance that there is a particular reverence for the morbid and the macabre. In his 2003 squirm-inducer Oldboy, Chan-Wook finds an opportunity to sate that curiosity, applying his skillful hand to acts of unspeakable brutality, making even the most sadistic act appear to be a filmic marvel. It’s hard to look away (especially when you want to) when compositions like these are so goddamned beautiful. Oldboy has more to offer than its imagery, however, and it is in those shadows Chan-Wook leaves the deepest cuts.
When we first meet Dae-su Oh (played by Min-sik Choi), it’s in a police station where Mr. Oh is completely and soundly hammered, proving to be an impossible nuisance to his authoritarian captors. He spits, he curses, he cries, he’s a fucking mess, and it seems that this is not Dae-su’s first rodeo: his friend Joo-Hwan (Dae-han Ji) comes to bail him out with the requisite apologies to the cops, then hustles him out into the night. It’s Dae-su’s daughter’s birthday, after all, and it’s time to be going home, but during a blustery phone call (a brilliant panning shot by Mr. Park), Dae-su disappears, not to be seen by Joo-Hwan, his family, or anyone else for fifteen years. And it is here that director Park pulls the veil back from the film, issuing forth a remarkably sick psychological torture of confinement and isolation (using a television to impart the passage of time), without ever revealing – to us or to Dae-su – the motivations or even the identity of the jailers. Something terrible must have happened, Dae-su must have done something exceptionally awful to someone in his life to merit such punishment. (The man is even given notebooks to fill in the names of all he’s done wrong, and the former souse has wronged quite a few people in his day.) Fifteen years pass. Dae-su wakes up stuffed in a trunk atop a rooftop and is given a cell phone, a wallet full of cash, and a phone call from his jailer, taunting Oh to find him. And where one mystery begins, Park lays out two more, working from his screenplay (co-written by Hwang Jo-yoon and Im Joon-hyeong), adapted from the (comparatively tame) Japanese manga of the same name, tightly in places, loosely in others, and completely different all-around. The narrative of the source material must have been a limited one in the story Park wanted to tell, because Oldboy The Film demands more from Dae-su (as opposed to his Japanese counterpart Shinichi Gotō), and as he digs deeper into the why of his situation, secrets from his forgotten past threaten to undo his desire for hot-blooded revenge.
The more that gets revealed means there is less of an impact for those uninitiated with Park Chan-Wook’s bloody masterstroke, but there is satisfaction in knowing the broad strokes of this brutal yet sophisticated yarn. It’s the small things that imply dire consequences in Oldboy, everything from a hammer, to a family album, to a yearbook cast a crucial and exciting pall over the moments to come. As for Dae-su Oh, played ferociously by Min-sik Choi, with a frayed, thick mop of hair barely concealing madness in his eyes, is a fervor of detached wires, not quite there, but ever-present. A fury that tidily hands the asses to a narrow gauntlet full of would-be killers (the film’s most eye-popping action sequence, handled in a single, vicious take), and makes time to pull the strings in his mind tight to get the task at hand done. Dae-su, in his red-lined black blazer, is a veritable Dracula: his bloodlust cannot be sated for the comeuppance towards those who done him wrong, and his cravings for the touch of a woman lead him into a nigh-inappropriate (however productive) relationship with barely legal Mi-do (a plucky Hye-jeong Kang). Through Mi-do, pieces of the bigger picture start crawling from the woodwork, and the passion that is sparked in Dae-su is mirrored in the sadism of his revealed tormentor. There is so much to discover alongside Dae-su in Oldboy, and the mystery is as lurid and unseemly as you like. Once the truth is revealed, there is more to find in the film other than the mandatory horror: there is a real heartbreak that lasts long after the movie comes to its end. To balance so much emotional baggage with the blood-soaked carnage as deftly as Park Chan-wook has here is more than a remarkable feat – it is a marvel to behold. When the director spins his indulgent sagas of retribution and mayhem, he seems to be trying to impart an indelible lesson on us all: that an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind.