A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection
Directed by Park Chan-wook
With Spike Lee's American remake of Oldboy slated for theatrical release on November 27, it's worth revisiting director Park Chan-wook's acclaimed 2003 original, a violent, twisty masterpiece that has remained a hallmark of South Korea's recent filmmaking renaissance. Oldboy is the second film in Park's so-called "Vengeance Trilogy" (alongside Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005)), a trio of films which share the central theme of revenge. None of the three films is a straightforward revenge thriller, and Park demonstrates a knack for exposing the complex web of violence and unforeseen consequences that can spring from acts of vengeance.
Oldboy begins with a drunken man named Oh Dae-su being abducted on the street after calling home to apologize for missing his young daughter's birthday. He is imprisoned without explanation in what appears to be a shabby hotel room. The room has a television, and he learns from a news broadcast that his wife was murdered, and that he is the prime suspect, his blood and fingerprints having been found at the scene of the crime. He is gassed periodically, awakening to find his hair cut and his room cleaned. He keeps a journal listing all of the people he wronged over the years, a surprisingly long chronicle of his misdeeds, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding and killing the person who had him imprisoned. He stays in shape and learns to fight by watching boxing on television, and then shadowboxing and punching the walls of his cell.
Inexplicably, after 15 years, he is set free, finding himself clad in an expensive suit and wristwatch, and in possession of a cell phone and a wallet full of cash. He goes to a restaurant, where the young female chef tells him he looks familiar. He says she looks familiar too. His phone rings, and on the other end of the line is the man who imprisoned him, asking him to think back over his whole lifetime to solve the riddle of his imprisonment. After passing out, Dae-su wakes up in the apartment of the young chef, whose name is Mi-do. She has been caring for him, and as she helps him begin to track down those who imprisoned him, they fall quickly in love. Dae-su locates the prison by finding the restaurant the prison's food came from, then following a delivery boy. Soon after, the identity of Oh Dae-su's adversary is revealed, and Dae-su must race to find the reason for his imprisonment in order to save Mi-do's life.
I will refrain from revealing any further plot details, as one of the primary pleasures of watching the film is seeing the unexpected twists and turns that the story takes. Suffice it to say that Lee Woo-jin, the man responsible for Dae-su's imprisonment, has his own plans for vengeance that extend well beyond simple isolation in a cell for 15 years, and that these plans are for more diabolical than anything Dae-su, or most viewers, would have initially anticipated.
Admittedly, Oldboy is not for everyone. There are scenes of shocking violence (although no scene may be harder to watch than that in which Dae-su devours of a live octopus), and revelations that will make even the most seasoned viewer uneasy. The film is also pervaded by a humor streak as black as they come. However, there are numerous instances of dazzling technical virtuosity (the fight scene in the prison hallway was shot in a single take), and many viewers may be surprised at how affecting the film's third act is. It is unusual for a work as violent and dark as Oldboy to explore such extreme emotional depths, and there are very few films that so effectively convey the repercussions of a life spent consumed by vengeance.