(Note: I’ve never made my love for Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy a secret, and I’ve never actually sat down and reviewed it in full. I’ve written pieces about it before, but only in context with what the movie means to me as a critic and cineaste. In light of my recent rediscovery of my love for Korean film, I’m going to correct that omission, so please enjoy this piece of effusive praise for what remains my all-time favorite movie.)
Amidst its graphic violence, stunning visual palette, titanic performances, and vibrant, multi-toned soundtrack, the greatest pleasure of Oldboy lies in its enigmatic complexion. It is a masculine, macho thriller, a tragedy of Grecian proportions, a gritty, cynical neo-noir, an exploitation movie which indulges (if sporadically) in all manner of bruising, bloodletting, and psychosexuality, an ugly portrait of human anguish, and a gorgeously realized character drama all rolled into one. And that’s how the film deserves to be taken; not in terms of its parts but rather their summation, and the effect produced by the way each of Oldboy‘s innumerable appendages are woven together. This is, perhaps, a Frankenstein’s monster of a picture, but one that achieves a savage, beautiful harmony.
The story starts out simply and cruelly, with the seemingly random abduction of salary man Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) during a routine bender. Whisked away in the middle of the night with no explanation– and right under the nose of his best friend, and in front of a police station no less– Dae-su wakes up to find himself interred in a grotesque mimicry of a hotel room, where a television set is his only company and his meals are delivered to him through a slot at the bottom of his prison’s door. First, he despairs, but his suicide attempts are foiled by his jailers; then, he plots and schemes, working himself into fighting shape as he attempts to deduce the identity of his enemy.
But time flies when you’re planning your revenge, and out of the blue Dae-su is spirited out of his prison and unceremoniously deposited on a rooftop. So begins the deadly game to discover the “why” of his captivity, and maybe win himself some payback in the process. Of course, it’s not so simple or bullheaded as that; do not take Quentin Tarantino’s stamp of approval as a sign that the film bears a surfeit of brutal, pulpy, crimson-soaked fight scenes. There are throwdowns, and they are vicious as they are inventive, but Park employs them with a sparing, refined sense of economy. Dae-su only puts his shadowboxing to good use when at the absolute utmost of need, notably in a single-take, side-scrolling brawl that has over the last decade become one of Oldboy‘s trademark moments.
The hallway fight still holds a great deal of currency even ten years after the film’s release, and it’s impossible to deny its visceral power. It is, however, a single five minute sequence that crops up nearly halfway through the picture’s running time; it’s sandwiched almost precisely between the overarching narrative, and represents the single longest stretch of action Oldboy offers. The rest comes in fits and spurts as Dae-su’s quest progresses. So it’s odd that Oldboy has come to earn notoriety through its violence rather than its tough guy gumshoe bent. Dae-su makes for a worthy successor to noir protagonists like Mike Hammers and Philip Marlowe, and it’s his inelegant but potent brand of detective work that gives Oldboy structure, shape, and a sense of origin. There’s no question what storytelling tradition Park’s movie belongs to.
Yet the film’s references are myriad. Noir stands out as the most obvious influence on Oldboy‘s form, but there’s as much Fritz Lang as Mickey Spillane mixed in here (only natural, given the impact German expressionism had on film noir). This is a picture that skulks through the shadows, pulsing with bitter misanthropy as Dae-su draws closer and closer to finding answers while peeling back layer after layer of human depravity and rancor in the process. In nearly every instance where someone could do right by his fellow man, that person does the opposite thing; perhaps the greatest kindness here is shown to the owner of the private prison where Dae-su languished for over a decade, but even that act of amelioration follows an impromptu session of low-tech dentistry. There’s little succor to be found in Park’s vision of Seoul.
Instead, there’s spiritual distress and torment. Eventually, Oldboy reveals the man behind the curtain, one of Dae-su’s old classmates, Woo-jin (Yu Ji-tae), and the details of our hero’s transgression come to light; thus elucidated, it becomes clear that the film isn’t just about Dae-su’s vengeful journey after all. Oldboy marks the second film in Park’s Vengeance trilogy, and unlike its predecessor, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, or the capstone entry in the series, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, Oldboy primarily concerns itself with depicting revenge as futile. In fact, in the department of revenge, Oldboy has more in common with Greek tragedy than Kill Bill, which embraces the Bride’s mission with teenage relish as she slices and dices her way through scores of bad guys without us ever feeling pity for them. None of Oldboy‘s characters come out ahead; none of them succeed in truly assuaging themselves of their guilt and suffering.
Which makes Oldboy a difficult pill to swallow, though it’s well worth the effort. The film is unflinchingly bleak and grim, but Park bathes all of it in rich, lush hues of purple, red, and green, while overlaying his mis-en-scene with intricate patterning. In rendering Oldboy so aesthetically pleasing, Park’s almost playing something of a prank on his audience; he’s conjoining the lovely with the hideous, and no matter how grisly things become, Park keeps them compelling. And that, more than anything, represents the film’s real trademark: Park’s poetically hard-boiled narrative and artistic sensibilities.