Park Chan-wook drags the audience down another twisted road of revenge in the brilliant Oldboy. This 2003 film follows 2002’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance as part the director’s trilogy of retribution. And like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy plumbs the depths of despair and finds an operatic sense of irony and black humour in the process.
This movie is based on the Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya manga of the same name. It features a screenplay by Chan-wook, Hwang Jo-yoon and Im Joon-hyeong. The talents of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon are put to tremendous use in the smudged hallways and life-munching interiors of this frantic cityscape.
Choi Min-sik stars as Oh Dae-su. Way back in 1988, he’s hauled into the cop shop for public intoxication and is subsequently kidnapped after his pal Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han) comes to bail him out. Dae-su is stuck in a single room with frequent gassings. Food is passed through a small slot at foot level. He watches the world on television. He beats the shit out of the wall.
Dae-su is released in 2003. He has some money and a suit. He meets a sushi chef named Mi-Do (Kang Hye-jung) and there is a connection. Dae-su sets out to determine what happened to him. His wife is dead and his daughter was reportedly adopted. Soon, he follows the path to a man named Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae) and learns that revenge is a dish best served squirming.
Oldboy initially functions as traditional mystery. Chan-wook induces curiosity like the drifting gas underneath Dae-su’s door. He offers prescriptions, small ones, and unfolds the plot and its manifest surprises with the precision of a vigilant dentist. The first mystery concerns the room Dae-su finds himself in.
Years erode and he digs a hole in the wall. He has three chopsticks. World events shimmer like shards of glass on TV, like 9/11 and Korean elections. He thinks he might be in the city. A bogus window provides the artifice of jade countryside. Fried dumplings are always on the menu. There is no rational explanation for Dae-su’s tiny purchase of apartment living.
By the time Dae-su is released, no rational explanation will do. Revenge fuels him. It’s all he is, all he lives for. Mik-sik evokes this with a snug restraint that he contrasts with a regressive sensibility. He wonders if he’s learned that much from TV and disposes of thugs. He wants to smell people, longs for a little of that human touch. And he wants to eat life itself.
Chan-wook has little sympathy for the rats in this race and he builds the cage well. He keeps the motion fluid, engaging with overhead shots of Mi-Do and Dae-su over collaged carpet in a derelict joint and gliding through a bracing hallway action sequence. The latter is an exhibition of force, motion and brutality with fluid sidelong movements by Chung-hoon’s lens.
There are moments in Oldboy that seem torn from the tapestry of a good urban fairy tale, complete with an impaling moral lesson. In that sense, Dae-su is on a quest as old as time with a culmination as frustrating as true duality. There are limits to the consummation vengeance can bring, but there are no limits to how far one is willing to go to taste that copper blood on the tongue.
Whether it’s the punishing implications of self-mutilation or the more dissolute consequences of Dae-su’s pilgrimage, Oldboy is classic tragedy. It functions like bitter and furtive literature set ablaze by astonishing filmmaking. And the Jo Yeong-wook score builds to the chorus, with every tense verse a souvenir of the internalized hollow that ever remains.
While Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance contended with characters slipping through the cracks of Korean society, Oldboy contends with characters slipping through the cracks of themselves. Chan-wook once again watches from above, with the exasperating misfortune below an opera of revenge’s everlasting “confession of pain” set to the struggling screams from a room down a hall to nowhere.