Chan Wook Park’s Oldboy
South Korean director Chan Wook Park‘s award winning film Oldboy (2003) is a mindbending story of two men’s quest for revenge. It’s also a strange, incestuous love story.
The night of his young daughters birthday, local businessman Oh Dae-su (Choi Min Sik) is arrested after getting in a drunken fight. Luckily he’s bailed out by his good friend Joo-Hwan (Ji Dae-han). Oh Dae-su calls home to tell his daughter (who he calls “Sweet Pea”) that he’ll be home soon. As Joo-Hwan takes the phone to talk, he notices Oh Dae-su has suddenly dissapeared. Oh Dae-su wakes up and finds himself being held captive inside a simple hotel room, but he doesn’t know why or who is doing this to him. Years pass as Oh Dae-su is confined and his hair grows into a comical shaggy mane. He continuously hallucinates and sees strange images such as ants crawling out of his skin. Luckily, he still has access to a TV but in a strange twist it is there he finds out that his wife has been murdered, his daughter has been sent away and he is the prime suspect. Severely traumatized, Oh takes out his anger by punching the walls and attempts to kill himself several times but is gassed into unconsciousness. Oh Dae-su manages to dig through the wall of his cell/room and reach the outside, but soon after he wakes up in a box on top of a building roof dressed in a new suit and has been given a cellphone. Now that he’s finally free he craves something to eat so he goes to an old sushi shop he knows and orders himself a delectable dish: a live octopus! (this is one of the film’s most stomach churning sequences). It’s there he meets Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), a cute young female sushi chef (itself a rare thing) who happens to be a celebrity he first saw on TV. The two get to know each other and soon fall in love. Oh Dae-su moves in with Mido and begins his mission to find out who was behind his kidnapping. Oh uses the food he ate inside as a starting point, and searches everywhere for the restaraunt that serves a similar tasting dumpling until he finds the kind he remembers. This leads him to the very building he was held in for 15 years. Oh ultimately learns that his captor is Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae) a man who blames him for something that occurred decades earlier and is forcing him to figure out the facts of why he was kidnapped. Woo-jin informs Oh Dae-su if he’s successful on this quest he will kill himself, but if he fails Oh’s beloved Mido will die. Oh Dae-su essentially becomes a tortured puppet on a string and does things that are against his own moral code and judgement, all the while searching for answers that take him through a myriad of obstacles and emotions until he uncovers the reason for his excruciating predicament.
Chan Wook Park crafted a completely fresh and interesting take on the standard “man out for revenge” film with Oldboy, making it an unpredictable, psychological puzzle. The visual aesthetic of the movie is also unique and captivating. Park uses bizarre imagery (some real, some CGI) and also loves playing with the themes of time and perception. There are even touches of Takashi Miike style violence as characters mess with the most sensitive parts of the body, such as teeth and tongues, giving certain scenes that over the top shock effect. In one of the most dynamic sequences, Oh Dae-su battles a gang of thugs in a long hallway using a hammer, the camera dollies along with him as he fights each man. The effect is both humorous and brutal. It also brings to mind violent video games with the same type of horizontal tracking design.
This is a film that certainly won’t be for everyone. It contains so many twists and turns and doesn’t play by rules most movies in this subgenre do. It’s also worlds apart from the kinds of watered down films Hollywood produces to bring in audiences. Still, those with more adventurous cinematic tastes will surely appreciate the offbeat, engaging vision Park created.
Old Boy is based on the Japanese manga of the same name written by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya. It is the second installment of The Vengeance Trilogy, preceded by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and followed by Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.