Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (and yes, before you ask, it’s written as one word)

Greetings Loved Ones! Lius Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Have you ever watched a movie that was so strange, so disturbing, and yet so thoroughly gripping, that afterwards you felt both the need to vomit and the need to see it again? If you haven’t, then perhaps you should stop reading. If you have, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about in this review of Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy. But, before I delve any deeper into my dissection of this delightfully despicable picture, I feel I should tell you a little something about myself.

I absolutely love foreign films, particularly those that come out of East Asia. My favorite directors are Zhang Yimou from China, Wong Kar Wai from Hong Kong, Ang Lee from Taiwan and Akira Kurosawa from Japan. I’m always on the lookout for new Asian movies and, since generally only the creme-de-la-creme of such films ever make it to American theaters, I usually find absolutely stunning pictures.

Anyway, a couple weeks back I was looking for something to watch in the “foreign” section of Netflix, and I kept coming across this Korean-language crime-thriller called Oldboy. I ended up watching something else, but the name stuck with me. A couple days later, I typed it into Google and discovered some shocking facts about it. Not only had it been a critical and financial success back in Korea, it had garnered a huge cult following in the US, and CNN had even listed it as “The Greatest Asian Movie of All Time!” Now, in general, most Americans don’t share my taste in foreign films, so the fact that so many other Americans were liking this movie told me that it was REALLY good. I knew, right then and there, that it had to be one of those truly great pictures–like Seven Samurai and Rashoman–that transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. My interest in the movie only increased when I discovered that Spike Lee was doing an American re-make of it. There’s that old saying, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” and some of the greatest Asian movies of all time (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, and Infernal Affairs) were so good that admiring American directors decided to remake them (The Magnificent Seven, A Fist Full of Dollars, and The Departed).

There was, of course, a part of me that was afraid to watch the movie. Rarely, if ever, do films or books live up to our expectations, and with a classification like “The Greatest Asian Movie of All Time,” Oldboy had some pretty high hopes riding on it. I didn’t want to watch it and discover that, like Star Wars and Avatar, it was weak in both plot and acting, and the only reason that people liked it was for its special effects. Eventually, however, I was able to overcome my fear and watch the film. Was it what I expected it to be? No. Was it still enjoyable? Yes! Oldboy might not be the greatest Asian movie of all time, but it is definitely an exciting, highly original, thought-provoking film with several things to like about it.

The first and foremost of these things is the fact that its story is highly unique. At first glance, Oldboy appears to be nothing but a B-grade revenge thriller. It certainly has all the familiar symptoms of one–man loses his wife, vows to find the person responsible, is aided on his quest by an attractive young woman whom he eventually falls for, etc. But, unlike a B-grade revenge thriller, Oldboy is able to turn its cliche characters and plot around and provide something fresh and exciting.

Perhaps I should elaborate. Oldboy follows the trials and tribulations of Oh Dae-Su, a drunken businessmen who, on his daughter’s sixth birthday, is kidnapped and locked in a prison cell made to look like a hotel room. He spends the next fifteen years there, shadow-boxing, plotting revenge, and watching the world change through his television. It is through this later practice that he learns that, back in the real world, his wife has been killed and he has been implicated in her murder. Finally, after exactly fifteen years of incarceration, Oh Dae-Su is released. As he searches for the one who killed his wife and locked him up, he becomes acquainted with a cute, quirky young woman named Mido. Eventually, the two of them fall in love and have sex, a fact which proves highly significant later in the movie. After a couple days of searching, the two of them find the culprit, a former classmate of Oh Dae-Su’s named Lee Woo-Jin. Woo-Jin makes a deal with them; if, in five days, they can find out why he locked up Oh Dae-Su, he will kill himself. Oh Dae-Su then follows a series of clues that lead him back to his High School. There, he recalls how, one day, completely by accident, he stumbled upon Woo-Jin having sex with his sister, Soo-Ah, in an empty classroom. Doing what any confused young man would have done in his position, Oh Dae-Su told his closest friend about it, who, in turn, told everyone else about it. As a result of the stress caused by comments other people made, Soo-Ah suffered from false signs of pregnancy. This eventually caused her to commit suicide, which, in turn, drove her brother insane with the desire for revenge. Believing that he has discovered why Woo-Jin locked him up, Oh Dae-Su confronts the former in his penthouse apartment. He apologizes for unintentionally contributing to Soo-Ah’s death, but also demands that Woo-Jin uphold their deal and kill himself. He says that Woo-Jin has had his revenge, and that, now, he ought to be allowed to have his own. Woo-Jin merely laughs and reveals to Oh Dae-Su what his true revenge was–getting Oh Dae-Su to unwittingly commit incest with his daughter. He explains how, before releasing Oh Dae-Su back into the real world, he had a hypnotist alter the later’s memories so that he would be unable to recognize Mido, his daughter, for who she really was. Terrified and appalled, Oh Dae-Su begs Woo-Jin to not tell Mido about the true nature of their relationship, and even goes so far as to cut off the tip of his tongue as a sign of penance. Woo-JIn agrees and, after briefly re-living the day of his sister’s suicide, kills himself. Some time later, Oh Dae-su is shown sitting in a winter landscape with the hypnotist whom Woo-jin used. Touched by his handwritten story and pleas, she hypnotizes him and alters his memories so that he forgets the terrible secret. Mi-do then finds Dae-su alone in the snow, and tells him she loves him before embracing him. Dae-su breaks into a wide smile, but it is quickly replaced by a look of pain, bringing into question whether the hypnosis worked.

As you can see, Oldboy’s plot is both strange and disturbing, and yet it is precisely this strangeness, this refusal to adhere to the norms of story-telling, that makes it so unique. Rather than simply letting Oh Dae-Su defeat his foe and live happily ever after, director Park Chan-Wook has him unconsciously play into another man’s plot, and thus unintentionally defeat himself. Instead of having the movie have a painfully clear, no-room-for-interpretation-type ending, Park has the film conclude in a manner nebulous enough to leave the audience wondering. Did the hypnosis work? When Mido said she loved Dae-Su at the end, did she mean that as a father or as a lover? Now that Woo-Jin is dead and all the violence is past, what will become of these characters? Who knows? Then again, who wants to know? After all, sometimes its that last little hint of mystery–that tiny detail that never quite gets explained–that determines whether a person loves a movie or simply likes it.

The second thing I like about Oldboy is the fact that it’s filled with puzzling images that challenge my perceptions. I don’t know about you, but I personally love it when a work of art dares me to think, and Oldboy  most certainly does that. There are several times in the movie when strange things simply happen, and you’re left wondering what Park’s intention was when he included them in the picture. For example, there’s a scene where Dae-Su and Mido are talking about something, and then, for no reason whatsoever, the subject of ants–yes, the tiny little bugs–is brought up. As if this weren’t weird enough, the movie then cuts to this two minute shot of Mido riding the subway with a man-sized insect. No explanation is ever given for the inclusion of this bizarre little vignette, so its up to the individual audience member to interpret it however he or she likes. Personally, I think its an attempt by the director to give Mido–an otherwise emotionally flat character–some depth. See, ants are generally perceived as tiny, insignificant creatures who ultimately live short, insignificant lives, so, when Mido has a fantasy about riding a train with an ant, she is trying to convey that, sometimes, she feels like an ant in terms of how other people perceive her. But hey, that’s just my interpretation.

Anyway, in general I’d give Oldboy a rating of 7 out of 10. It’ has some highly unique images, in addition to an incredibly original story, and who wouldn’t like to see a movie with those characteristics? On the other hand, it does have some pretty violent scenes–like the one where Dae-Su knocks out this guy’s teeth with a hammer–and it does explore the sickening subject of incest in some detail. Then again, its no more violent or sexual than Game of Thrones, and if you can stomach that, then I don’t think you’ll have any problems.

Alright, I’m signing off for today. I hope you enjoyed, or at least tolerated, my review. If you’ve seen the film and would like to share your own interpretations, by all means, do so.

Nathan Liu

P.S. Here are some movies from the directors I listed.

From Zhang Yimou…

1. Hero,

2. House of Flying Daggers,

3. The Flowers of War,

4. Raise the Red Lantern,

& 5. Red Sorghum.

From Akira Kurosawa…

1. Seven Samurai,

2. Yojimbo,

3. Rashoman,

4. Throne of Blood,

5. Ikiru,

6. Hidden Fortress,

7. Ran,

& 8. Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.

From Wong Kar Wai…

1. The Grand Master,

2. In the Mood for Love,

& 3. Chungking Express.

From Ang Lee…

1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,

2. Lust, Caution,

3. Eat, Drink, Man, Woman,

4. Brokeback Mountain,

& 5. Life of Pi.

 

 

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