If Chan-wook Park’s prior two features, JSA: Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, garnered international attention then it was with his next feature, Oldboy, that he earned genuine celebrity in the west. Perfectly stylised, involving and invested with a sheen and production scheme that rivalled the very best of Hollywood, the film became a cult sensation as it not only delighted those customarily intrigued by Asian cinema but also spread outwards to the general populace.
Its influence could be seen in the tales of American remakes with names like Nicholas Cage, Will Smith and Steven Spielberg all attached at various points. Yet no remakes have come to pass and it’s perhaps because the film’s own precision and quality repels other artists and investors. Only the original will do and Oldboy really is just that. Though it uses many of the same clever ideas of its pre-cursor, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first part in a trilogy linked by theme rather than narrative, Oldboy is a more outlandish product and, even though it revisits similar themes and ideas, it really couldn’t be a more different experience.
Oldboy holds true to something that seems intrinsic to all of Park’s work; there are few writer/directors out there better able to link form and theme so fully. This being the case, discussion of Oldboy is very difficult without divulging plot details and, if you’re not familiar with the plot already, then one can only suggest you rectify that before reading any further. There’s not many films that deserve such attention but this is certainly one such title.
Following the brief opening production credits we’re whipped up in a flurry of sound and dynamic composition as we find one man holding another over the edge of a building. It would seem, far from an attempt on his life, that a suicide is actually being prevented. Quietening down, we’re properly introduced to the man who held the other’s life, Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi). He sits in a police station and he’s proving a handful for the officers on duty as he vies for their attention and pity. It’s his daughter’s birthday but, as is apparently typical, he has decided instead to drink himself into a stupour rather than spend time with her. A friend eventually collects him and, as they call home from a payphone, Dae-su is whisked away by some unseen assailant.
What follows is a remarkable sequence following the protagonist through no less than fifteen years of imprisonment in a strange, private internment block. More like a hotel room than a traditional cell, Dae-su is confined but afforded the luxury of a television and furnishings. In those fifteen years, never explained by the unseen guards who dose him with valium gas whenever they need to go into his cell, Dae-su sees the death of his wife on TV, a crime he is blamed for, and so many other events from around the world as they pass him by. The TV is his window to the world, his teacher, his lover and his lifeline.
As he compiles a list of all those he might have wronged the realisation hits that his life was all too full of selfishness. Nonetheless, simply accepting this arbitrary punishment will not do. Dae-su formulates plans of escape. As he nears completion of his goal, counting the days, the years and the strain, he finds himself inexplicably released. Wearing a dapper suit, with a mobile phone and a wallet full of currency, he is back on the streets. All Dae-su can now envision is revenge for whoever stole all those years. Meeting up with a young girl named Mido (Hye-jeong Kang) at a sushi bar, the two start following the clues back to Dae-su’s captor.
In essence Oldboy is a reworking of the ideas of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. Intrinsic to its structure is the idea of a revenge tale that unfolds from both perspectives; that of the wronged and of the wronger. The difference is in the vastly more ornate structure that Oldboy utilises. Where Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance formed something of a natural progression, Ryu’s mistakes leading to the grand crime which allows the film to switch over to Ding-jin’s vengeance, the format here is quite different and, for the first time viewer, far more surprising. Of vital import is the idea of audience complicity as we follow Dae-su along his chosen path. He may not have chosen to be imprisoned for so many years but upon his release, vengeance consumes him. As the audience, we follow him along.
So we are on Dae-su’s side, we are his partners as he winds down the twists and turns of the film’s story only to find out, all too late, that all this time we have actually been witnessing the intricate revenge scheme of another man, Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yu). This expertly rigged structure, drip-feeding information at just the right rate to doom the protagonist and drag us through his miseries too, again harks back to the meta-referential methodology of Park’s Mr. Vengeance. Although crediting a Japanese manga as source material, this is immediately recognisable as a Park original – while certainly indebted to the comic Park strips away almost the entirety of the original’s content aside from a few structural details. A lengthy and unexplained imprisonment and The Violet Blue Dragon restaurant that provides the dumplings Dae-su eats each and every day, Oldboy slots perfectly into all the thematic notches you’d expect and suggests an entirely personal work.
What marks out Oldboy as an unusual revenge thriller is the perception we’re given of the seeming protagonist, Dae-su Oh. Unlike Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, in which the audience can only wish Ryu better luck knowing that it will never come, this time around, since we’re denied any perspective grander than the protagonist’s, we can only encourage him to run deeper down the rabbit hole. The trick being that no one sees the danger signs that surround his endeavour. If Woo-jin’s motives are a mystery and certainly never justifiable, the full scale of his plan is greater than any initial impressions could have suggested.
We’re given hints, or perhaps a test of our character, in the opening moments following Dae-su’s first encounters having been released. In the space of a few minutes he robs an old woman of her sunglasses and can only crack a smile as a suicidal man and his dog crash onto a car behind him. After 15 years in a room, with nothing but TV for company, life is a game. With this absurd perspective who couldn’t help but tag along with the guy? Our mistake is his and the traits that earned him his punishment are only exemplified in the selfishness he displays upon release. His self-assumed cool image is a shield against the uncertainty of his world and the film repeatedly undercuts it, often using humorous elements such as an on-screen graphic dissecting his plan to hit someone on the head with a hammer. To that same end Park has talked about the frequent use of montage within the film1. As he rightly recognises, they are used a lot in cheap films and have become cliché. They are then, perfect for Oldboy. It only strengthens his vengeance trilogy and its hijacking of genre cinema, its expectations and the audience’s relationship with them.
It becomes clear then, particularly as Woo-jin’s motives are revealed, that the underlying message is a clear denunciation of vengeance as a principle. Though the costs are astronomical, the causes are fundamentally petty, absurd, and ultimately misplaced. Recalling the story of Frankenstein2, Woo-jin’s hatred moulds Dae-su into a monster who then eagerly earns his full punishment. Living only to destroy each other the two sacrifice everything for what ostensibly amounts to very little and, as they do so, they wantonly ruin the lives of all those around them too.
Ants once again play a role. Park claims they hold no greater meaning for him but that they are cute on their own and scary in groups. Here they seem to bring to mind loneliness and insanity as their presence is linked to hallucinations and dreams. Unlike the traits suggested by Yeong-mi in Mr. Vengeance3, the ants found here offer no helpful predictions to aid Dae-su and Mido as they navigate Woo-jin’s cruel maze. Instead they seem more akin to the men of J.S.A., small creatures caught in the grinding cogs of a machine so large that it cannot stop nor would ever wish to. Ants are expendable.
Tying structure to theme we are treated to several superb setpieces throughout. Easily the finest example is a battle between Dae-su and a hoard of enemies, shot from a side-on perspective and running uninterrupted for over three minutes. Reminiscent of John Woo’s formal concerns, the sheer complexity and bravura of the sequence doubles as a reminder of the emotional toil involved. However if Woo is out to create heroes, albeit flawed ones, then Park has very different designs. Dae-su’s efforts here are a waste as are almost all of his actions. He tries to escape from prison but is released just before he succeeds. Later on he sees the prison office lined with video-monitors. His painstaking progress, carving through the wall for all of a decade, was entertainment for his jailers. When is he is finally released, he frantically chases Woo-jin only to find out that the joke has always been on him. Far from hero or even anti-hero, Dae-su is instead reduced to a bitter joke.
As events plays out and we’re left to sort through the emotional rubble we realise what this struggle has brought Dae-su. With the film’s resolution we’re handed a conundrum by the director to sort out in our own time, a troubling gift given our complicity with the protagonist. The romance between Mido and Dae-su was, of course, simply another facet of Woo-jin’s designs but the two surely belong together now. For all Woo-jin’s destructiveness he allows them this possibility. Of course Dae-su’s final visage, a smile or a silent scream, makes it impossible for us to know if he can unlearn the truth he once discovered. Should we wish that he does? Does he deserve happiness and respite? Having brought the audience into the equation the film is reminiscent of similar queries posed in Gaspar Noé’s unsparing Seul contre tous (aka. I Stand Alone). Through our gaze and expectations for the film to unfold and amuse us, we’re then asked how much sympathy we can truly spare for the wretched specimens of our interest.
Vital to the film’s success is its lush production design. For those familiar with Park’s work there’s never been any mistaking his consummate skill as a craftsman. From the rough but creative design of Simpan he seemed to arise fully formed when handed a larger budget and the result, J.S.A., was shot through with near perfect handling of its story, visuals and structure. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance only furthered his reputation boasting a visual and aural design that most directors could only envy.
This time around Park eschews the rather stayed nuances of Mr. Vengeance and instead opts for an all-out cinematic thrill ride. Bold colour palettes focussing on greens, purples, reds and blacks combine with complex, computer augmented edits and effects-shots to create a visual tour-de-force. Meanwhile the soundtrack, courtesy of Hyun-jung Shim, combines minimalist electronic pulses with lush classical waltzes and an edged rendition of Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ that stay with the viewer long after the final credits roll. As originally composed soundtracks go, Shim’s work stands as one of the most impressive efforts of recent years.
Maintaining the standard set in Park’s earlier work the actors again turn in superb performances all around. Although the weight of its stylisation may render Oldboy less friendly to its cast than his two earlier features the two male leads still succeed admirably in anchoring the production. Perhaps the best known actor in Korean cinema, admittedly largely because of this film, Min-sik Choi is in top form as Dae-Su Oh. Fluctuating in weight and poise he begins as an overweight, garrulous drunkard before transforming into a streamlined engine of violence. Director Park has stated that he drew inspiration for the character, his petty anger and emotional limitations, from the character Choi played in another fine, and far more restrained, Korean drama, Failan4.
On the flipside of the coin, indeed almost representing another part of Dae-su, is his tormentor, Woo-Jin, played by Ji-tae Yu. Elegant, refined and always in control he represents another dimension to the madness that engulfs Dae-su. Neither man, despite the differences in their demeanours, are really in control or have any quality of life. Hatred and vengeance has consumed both to the point that all that’s left is a crippling dependence on the other. Making literal the depth of Woo-jin’s damage, the choice in casting a significantly younger man for the role5 suggests that the day he was wronged, he entered a sort of suspended animation; his grief presenting him with a barrier he simply could not circumvent.
So the final question regarding Oldboy’s merits is surely whether or not it improves on the technique utilised in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In terms of thematic content the two films cover almost identical ground but their chosen formats could not be more different. The mass market has certainly made its choice known as Oldboy remains Park’s biggest international hit. In fact it is undoubtedly one of the biggest success stories of world cinema of the last decade. Nonetheless the way audiences have warmed to the film suggests that many simply enjoy the ride and the stylisation rather than the disturbing undertones it all builds to. It’s to be expected of course, the bulk of Park’s cinema always balanced precariously between the trappings of genre and the high ideals of the art world.
If Oldboy fails because its stylisation allows many viewers to distance themselves from the horror then the same charge can be made of Mr. Vengeance which, with its utilisation of often shocking violence, may serve some as a handy fix along the same lines as Saw or Death Wish. It is most prudent to mark it down to personal preference. Both films boast a slew of merits and an undeniable intelligence but both also depend on hijacking perceptions as they go. Whichever one works best must invariably depend on the audience and each audience must decide for themselves.
By this writer’s count Oldboy can only be a runner-up to its predecessor. Nonetheless it still represents an impressive peak in cinema – a rare example of a film that thrives from the clever interlinking of structure and theme. The critical community would seem to agree as the film won awards across the world, most notably the Jury Grand Prix prize at Cannes6. While no Hollywood remake has yet surfaced it’s still a possibility as the film continues to be discussed and heavily distributed both in the United States and abroad7. Boasting a success story on a par with Amelie one might wonder if the secret to international success is a green camera filter. Probably not, as each film boasts qualities that maintain both their domestic flavour while easily enrapturing those in other territories.
1 Stated during his solo director’s audio commentary, as included in most western DVD releases of the film.
2 We glimpse a brief frame of James Whale’s film during Dae-su’s internment. Park mentions in his audio commentary that Mary Shelley’s tale was a driving force for the production. Woo-jin’s towering apartment building was also intended as a visual reference to the doctor’s isolated castle in Whale’s film.
3 During a spirited sex scene in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, as the couple sign to one another, Yeong-mi suggests that Ryu is like an ant. Ants, she says, seem to possess psychic abilities that allow them to avoid natural disasters. Ironically neither Ryu nor Yeong-mi can avoid their fate.
4 As a point of trivia the photo that Dae-su presents to the policemen during his drunken internment at the beginning of the film was taken on the set of Failan.
5 Though Woo-jin and Dae-su went to school together, possibly separated by a year or two, fifteen years separate actors Yu and Choi.
6 Effectively the second place prize of the festival. Quentin Tarantino, an admitted fan of Park’s work, headed up the jury that year. All things being even the film should have earned the top prize, the Palme d’Or, ahead of the crudely politicised victor: Michael Moore’s caustic anti-George W. Bush documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11.
7 In India a totally unofficial remake, Zinda, was produced in 2006. It’s unsurprisingly no match for the original but possesses a certain goofy charm. This charm is largely the result of its makers trying to copy the aesthetics of Park’s film whilst changing key narrative elements to remove offensive elements for a domestic Indian audience. The excising of these details completely derails the thematic elements of Park’s original script and renders the bulk of the film entirely nonsensical.