Modern Masterpieces #5: Oldboy
Not since The Count of Monte Cristo has revenge been conducted as elaborately and cruelly as the payback at the heart of Park Chan-wook’s devastating thriller Oldboy. If you’re of a nervous disposition, or like to watch pleasant films about pleasant people, perhaps you should stop reading now and make it a plan to never even glance towards this South Korean modern classic, for Oldboy is not for the fainthearted. Horrifically bloody, intensely performed, and relentless in its brutality and suffering, the film will make even the toughest viewer need a stiff drink. You won’t want to watch the screen, but you’ll have to; watch just fifteen minutes of Oldboy, and you’ll be hooked until the end.
After a brief but startling opening image of a man being held off a rooftop by his tie, Chan-wook introduces us to Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), a loud-mouthed drunk handcuffed to a police station wall. Through his hilarious interruptions (mostly improvised in many long takes by Min-sik), we learn that he’s missing his daughter’s birthday to have his own fun. Within five minutes, it’s pretty clear this is not a nice man. Bailed out by his friend, Oh Dae-su is left to his own devices, and quickly disappears into the darkness of the night.
Waking up in a tiny, ugly hotel room, Oh Dae-su initially pleads with his captors to release him. After a few years of realising nobody is coming with the key, and slowly losing his mind to his numbing routine of television, dumplings, and noxious gas (so he can be given a haircut and shave), Oh Dae-su decides death is his only freedom, and slashes his wrists. It is at this point we see just how far his captors will go, stitching him up and forcing him to keep living in just one of the film’s many unusually disturbing twists. Motivated by his forced existence, along with a news report revealing he is suspected of the murder of his wife, Oh Dae-su gets himself into shape, pounding the walls and digging his way through the walls. Just as it seems escape is finally a possibility, Oh Dae-su is knocked out and released, giving us the memorable image of a man waking up in a suitcase.
After a slight bit of black comedy involving the interrogation of a suicidal man (this is from the director who would eventually give us one of the world’s strangest vampire films, Thirst), Oh-Dae su is on a mission, determined to find his captor and find out the reason for his fifteen year solitary stretch. It would be easy for the film to become a substandard, Death Wish-style ‘man sets out for revenge’ story (this was the case with Spike Lee’s passable remake), but Chan-wook is too creative and otherworldly to not let his film push the envelope and create visions never seen before or since in cinemas.
In the films most shocking and talked about scene, for example, Oh Dae-su walks into a restaurant and first meets the chef who will later become both a sidekick and love interest, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung). A conventional director would simply have the two talk and grow interested in each other; Chan-wook has Oh Dae-su say “I want to eat something alive” and then chow down a huge, living squid. It’s a truly disgusting moment, one that forced Buddhist actor Min-sik to apologise over and over, yet it’s a scene that proves Chan-wook isn’t taking the easy route or allowing his characters an easy time. Oldboy is a film about suffering and martyrdom, so it makes sense the cast had to suffer the same fates as the characters. Later, we will see hallucinatory visions of giant ants riding subway trains and suicidal teenagers snapping pictures of their own deaths. Still think you’re watching Death Wish?
From this point on, Oh Dae-su’s revenge quest drives the film forward and gives me less to talk about, simply because the plot moves in so many unexpected directions, it needs to spoiled as little as possible. In another classic scene, Oh Dae-su takes on dozens of henchmen armed with nothing but a hammer, Chan-wook framing and capturing the action in one gruelling take. A precursor to similar scenes in The Raid and Daredevil, the hallway fight is a deranged, bone-crunching classic in action cinema, and more proof that Chan-wook is willing to go further than any other director. Most scenes like this would end at the main character being stabbed in the back, but Oh Dae-su keeps fighting long after he should have been downed. Oldboy has a lot of plot and exposition to get through, but the pace never slows, Chan-wook constantly wrong-footing us and taking the story to surprising levels. The villain reveals himself halfway through. Oh Dae-su is beaten and battered (in a spot of DIY dentistry that makes Marathon Man look like Disney) at every single turn. Most of the film’s climax takes place in a high school flashback. The reason for Oh Dae-su’s imprisonment? A throwaway comment he doesn’t even remember, that happened to ruin the life of one of his peers. The full extent of his punishment? Beyond what we can imagine.
Many people cite Oldboy’s plot as being ridiculous and unbelievable. Make no mistake; it is as elaborate and over the top as it could possibly be, involving imprisonment, hypnosis, fake news reports, endless murder, and a lot of good luck for the villains. Personally, I don’t think the point of Oldboy is to be a gritty, down-to-Earth look at past mistakes and revenge. What Park Chan-wook has created is one of cinemas purest vision of evil; a degrading, horrible look at the ugliness of man, and how far humans can go to punish those who have wronged them. Sure, using hypnosis to set your plans in motion is kind of dumb, and I question a criminal business that keeps people locked up in a hotel-cum-prison, but it doesn’t matter how unbelievable the plot is when it’s this gripping and disturbing.
Another way the film avoids being too silly is through the acting performance of Chow Min-sik. An incredible screen presence, usually seen playing sleazy villains (like the paedophilic child murderer in Oldboy follow-up Lady Vengeance, or his biggest international role as the drug peddler in Lucy), here he transforms to play a wounded lion of an antihero. Aware of his past indiscretions (the list he creates of people who would willingly kidnap him is a mile long), this is a man seeking not redemption, but information. It’s almost moving when you realise he’s being punished for a bad deed he can’t even remember.
Min-sik has one of the most interesting faces in film history, somehow looking more eerie and disturbing when he smiles than when he cries in pain. Along with his squid-eating antics, Min-sik really throws himself into the role, tearing himself apart inside and out, suffering for his art. Facing the threat of a secret being revealed to Mi-do, he degrades himself, screaming and crying and barking like a dog, in a truly deranged, borderline frightening scene. Try seeing his face at the end of the film, his expression frozen somewhere between ignorant bliss and informed terror, and tell me it doesn’t burn onto your brain.
Oldboy will get under your skin. It drags you down to the depths of human behaviour, rubs your face in the dirt, and kicks you in the teeth while you’re down there. Physical, raw, and uncomfortable in the most visceral sense, many will be put off by the violence and pain at the heart of this fantastic revenge fable. The plot, and individual set pieces, may stake a claim to be the most memorable of the last decade, and Chow Min-sik gives a performance as committed as any Oscar-winning method actor, but I feel the greatness of Oldboy comes from its director. Park Chan-wook elevates what could be pulpy, trashy, B-movie material and turns it into greatness. Unwilling to let the film fall by the wayside with any other revenge film, he makes it hallucinatory, wild-eyed, and completely unlike any other film out there. Sit down and brace yourself; it’s time to watch one of modern cinema’s greatest ordeals.
By Harry J. Ford
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