old boy on vengeance

When I reviewed South Korean film The Man from Nowhere (2010, Jeong-beom Lee) the other day, Chan-wook Park’s Old Boy was recommended in turn; which was great because I had seen the film and felt complimented by such a brilliant recommendation. Now, it isn’t that Old Boy and The Man from Nowhere are similar in any way other than they are both beautiful and created in South Korea. Okay, both are bloody and violent, and unexpected (read somewhat exceptional to their peers).

Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) has been held captive for 15 years in a hotel room cell. He was picked up off the street one night when the friend who had just retrieved him from the police station turned his back. There is no explanation for this kidnapping, and recently freed Dae-su is determined to find out who the perpetrator was and why.

We know very little about Dae-su other than he has a wife and daughter and a best friend (to bail him out)—and occasionally he might drink too much. Otherwise he is completely ordinary—obnoxious, sure. Most of his existence that we are privy to from then on is via sequences of his life in the room. We are as dumbfounded by the utter randomness of his kidnapping as he is.

His captor isn’t through playing with Dae-su. He wants to be found, as his vengeance isn’t fully satisfied. Really? What could Dae-su have done to deserve this person’s wrath? He has 5 days to figure it out. With the help of his  new friend Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang) and his old friend Joo-Hwan (Dae-han Ji) Dae-su tries to puzzle out who he and his tormentor are.

Min-sik Choi as Dae-su is riveting. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the other cast members because I was that enrapt.

The captor’s vengeance might be served cold, but Dae-su is running hot. His rage becomes bloody quickly. One sequence is shot in one take that ends in a hallway of wounded and dead—it is fantastically done.

There is a lot of psychological violence in the film. In many ways, this isn’t just an action-suspense thriller, but a horror film. The content has a lot that should disturb the viewer, but wholly engage their moral dilemmas, or at least introduce a few. What actions warrant vengeance? And to what extent is the vengeance warranted—how far does one take it? What is the price of a crime (self-diagnosed or no)?

My favorite portion is Dae-su going back to a place to try to remember, to look for a clue forgotten in his past, and as he walks around his younger self is there. You don’t see the two together. The older walks around a corner and the younger emerges. Up and around, through passageways, along steps. The living pursuing a ghost that is revealing what we need to know and have yet to understand. Memory is an important discussion point in the film. Vengeance relies on memory, on the part of the victim and perpetrator. Already that is two different perspectives, there can be so many more. Memory affects outcomes, it haunts, it keeps people from ignorance…Memory is no more straight-forward a concept than Vengeance and the two are intertwined magnificently in Old Boy.

The power of suggestion is another intriguing aspect to the film. It holds hands with individual perspectives. As viewers, we can only know as much as we are given. Dae-su is in no better a position. We know no better what has been tampered with than he. But we know manipulations have already shaped Dae-su’s world—but to what extent? Chan-wook Park has an incredible imagination and he pushes beyond the limits of his viewership (hopefully). Now if you haven’t seen Old Boy, don’t hurt yourself trying to puzzle out the story with the most derange ideas in your repertoire, just sit back and be properly horrified with the rest of us. And then consider who was worthy of what blame, what outcome, and whether you would do what the woman at the end of the film does in the response to the man’s story.

Roger Ebert has a magnificent review of this film. He comments on an important distinction in this film that will surprise many of the viewers who are not unused Revenge films where there is mystery and violence and thrilling turns.

“Oldboy” ventures to emotional extremes, but not without reason. We are so accustomed to “thrillers” that exist only as machines for creating diversion that it’s a shock to find a movie in which the action, however violent, makes a statement and has a purpose.

Chan-wook Park is quite masterful with Old Boy. Regardless of your level of disgust or unease at the end of the film, an admittance to Old Boy’s craftsmanship cannot be withheld either. Old Boy might provoke your adrenal responses, but that isn’t all its interested in provoking.

Again, to quote Ebert, “”Oldboy” is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.”


note: this film is not unlike The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, Niels Arden Oplev) where the violence and some of the content is hard for me to casually recommend without some cautions. The violence, though not gratuitous here, is flinching. The filming is smooth (edited and lovely and clean) but the subjects are raw.

Old Boy is also the second installment of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy. I will be reviewing Lady Vengeance (the 3rd part) soon. I am still psyching myself up for Sympathies to Mr. Vengeance (the 1st).

Old Boy (2003)

Director: Park Chan-wook

Produced by Lim Seng-yong

Written by Hwang Jo-yun, Park Chan-wook, Lim Chun-hyeong, Lim Joon-hyung, Garon Tsuchiya

Starring: Choi Min-sik, Yu Ji-tae, Kang Hye-jeong

Music by Jo Yeong-wook

Cinematography Jeong Jeong-hoon

Made in South Korea.

In Korean (I watched the dubbed-version and thought it was good.)

120 minutes. Rated-R

IMDb page. Wiki page.

Published by L

I read, and I write. and until recently, I sold books.

6 thoughts on “old boy on vengeance

  1. The comparison to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the “real” film version, not the American one) is an apt one considering what I am about to say and that is that these kind of films are certainly hard to recommend and more often than not are the kind of films I don’t enjoy watching. So it speaks to the quality of a film when it is something I not only watch but *want* to recommend despite its subject matter.

    Old Boy is very violent and worse are the psychological elements you mention. But for all that it is such a compelling, well-acted and tightly plotted film. I watched it by myself after a friend loaned it to me (no way my wife would stomach this kind of film) and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, and when that end scene came I quite literally yelled out a “no way” or something to that effect.

    That has only happened to me a couple of times, one that leaps immediately to mind was when I finally watched Fight Club (again I was alone that time, other than my dog on the couch with me). When the big reveal (which I hadn’t seen coming) was revealed I paused cried out and paused the DVD and had a very animated discussion with my dog. I then called the friend who recommended the DVD and had the same animated conversation with him before returning to the film.

    I would like to watch the other films in this sequence and some point and also want to watch The Man From Nowhere. I need to take off a few days just to spend some time watching movies I know my wife won’t be interested in. 🙂

  2. “animated conversation with the dog.” lol.

    “no way” sums up the response to the film perfectly. and it is too compelling not to share. I suppose I do try to keep in mind specific people with films like this; like the friend lending a dvd; though of course in a blog it is a bit tricky. Fight Club, too, is tricky and mainly with female audiences…but I share your very animated response. I didn’t see it coming.

    Lady Vengeance is even trickier because it is challenging in other ways, though the content is just as disturbing and bloody and adds another kind of sexual violation. but the film is so terribly relevant.

    I can only handle so many, so I have to take long breaks. as I too tend to not seek out these kinds of films; I really rely on recommendation and someone to watch them with…or have on call.

    —Sean has a catalog of films and genres he watches on his own.

  3. There aren’t many kinds of films that Mary will not watch with me, but I learned pretty quickly that this is certainly not the kind of film she will enjoy. She tends to ruminate on them too much and dream about them so something I might brush off immediately sticks with her for days. But I’m not complaining because I wouldn’t want to feel compelled to watch films like this all the time anyway.

    I feel lucky to have a wife who shares the same love of science fiction, fantasy, British drama and comedy, cartoons, period films, etc. We have a lot of fun watching a wide variety of things together.

  4. You should check out the rest of the “Vengence Trilogy”. I saw “Sympathy for Mr. Vengence” and it was pretty good too. It didn’t stick in my gut as much as “Oldboy”, but a few choice scenes are just… there.

    1. i will have to watch Mr. Vengeance sooner than later; find a good summery evening.–thanks for your input.

      I checked out your blog link, see you live in Seoul. My brother-in-law and sister were there a couple years back, with the US Army. it was a short stay, but Carl really enjoyed it. anyway I was tempted to call him the other day to verify how to list the names properly. wiki had it one way, IMDb another… also, I had no idea that eating a living octopus was not unheard of (though I guess the uncut was not usual)….if you happen by for any of my other ramblings on S.Korean films and have corrections, insights, or recommendations, would love to read them. I hope to review Lady Vengeance, and The Good The Bad The Weird soon.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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