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.
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).
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