Park Chan-wook, 2003
Starring: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang
Following the first film in his Vengeance trilogy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), the more popular middle entry, Oldboy, is based on a manga of the same name by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. On the night of his young daughter’s birthday, Oh Dae-su is released from the police station for being drunk and disorderly, then promptly goes missing. He wakes up in a single room where he will spend the next fifteen years. He is only given fried dumplings to eat and is otherwise cared for while unconscious. His only contact with the outside world is television where he learns he has been framed for his wife’s murder and his daughter has been given up for adoption. This drives him to regularly hallucinate and attempt to kill himself. Determined to one day get revenge, he keeps a detailed journal of all his wrongdoings and physically trains for the day he will escape.
Suddenly he is released and receives a cell phone and wallet from a stranger. He wanders into a restaurant and a sushi chef, Mi-do, feeds and then cares for him, taking him home after he collapses. His mysterious kidnapper calls him and messages Mi-do on her computer. Suspicious of her, Dae-su flees and manages to track down the building where he was held captive based on his discovery of the restaurant the dumplings were ordered from. He tortures the building manager, but gets no information and has to fight his way out of the building in an impressive (and now famous) long-take single shot. A man, Woo-jin, places the wounded Dae-su into a taxi and sends him to Mi-do’s apartment. Woo-jin soon identifies himself as the kidnapper and says that Mi-do will die if Dae-su can’t figure out why he was kidnapped and imprisoned, but if he succeeds, Woo-jin will commit suicide.
SPOILERS: Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t seen the film yet. This is where the whole thing begins to come off the rails, sadly. Mi-do and Dae-su develop a romantic relationship as Dae-su discovers that he and Woo-jin went to school together. Woo-jin had a secret, incestuous relationship with his sister that Dae-su discovered and accidentally spread a rumor about. The rumor grew out of control and led to Woo-jin’s sister killing herself. When he confronts Woo-jin with this information, Woo-jin presents Dae-su with a photo album showing that Mi-do is actually his long lost daughter, now grown up. Woo-jin orchestrated their relationship, partly through the use of hypnosis. After going mad with grief, Dae-su cuts out his own tongue, begging Woo-jin not to tell Mi-do. Woo-jin agrees and then kills himself. Dae-su uses the same hypnotist to forget the horrible secret and he and Mi-do go off into the wintry countryside. It is unclear whether the hypnosis was successful.
Oldboy received some mixed reviews, but for the most part was critically acclaimed and did well in the box office, especially in Korea. Though it was nominated for a Palme d’Or at Cannes, it won the Grand Prix, or Best Director’s award. This exceedingly stylized film is the flashiest of the trilogy, playing out like a mash-up of David Fincher, Ichi the Killer, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the latter of which is referenced in the film. Like its sibling films, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance, Oldboy leaves the viewer feeling as though they have seen much more devastating violence than actually occurs on screen, though Oldboy does exhibit more sex and gruesome violence than either of the other Vengeance films.
The impressive first half is heavily influenced by The Count of Monte Cristo and a handful of noir films. Initially, the cause of Dae-su’s vengeance is that he has been imprisoned and framed for his wife’s murder. He is convinced that someone is taking revenge on him for the horrible life he has led, but his motivation soon shifts. His wife’s murder is not mentioned beyond the first quarter of the film and his primary cause for retribution seems to be the loss of fifteen years of his life. Oldboy is almost completely driven by a strong performance from Choi Min-sik, who brings rage, pathos, and a great amount of complexity to the role. The second act is harrowing, but also unravels and gets hung up on clumsy plot devices and the final twist. Park does attempt to bring us into the world of classic Greek-style tragedy, where bad becomes worse and the only possibly salvation is a dreadful act of mutilation and subsequent banishment.
Critics of Oldboy attest that it is a visually flashy exploitation film with a lot of dazzle but little substance. The hypnotism subplot and twist ending strain credulity at best, but Park is still forcing us to question the merit of violence and vengeance, as well as the aftermath of these calculated acts. The film comes recommended, particularly for fans of violent revenge cinema. There is a DVD from Tartan Asia Extreme and a special edition 2-disc Blu-ray from Tartan that includes a ton of special features.