Min-sik Choi as Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook‘s claustrophobic sado-thriller – Oldboy
Rating: 5.0 out of 5
Korea is fast building a reputation for producing some of the most violent cinema in the world. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, from the acclaimed Vengeance Trilogy, is no exception: this film is shocking in a way that has not been seen in the Western hemisphere, and it’s psychologically sadistic in the most acute way. This isn’t gratuitous and exploitative violence though, and the horrors that reside within Oldboy aren’t for shock value, but are part of the wider study of the diabolical nature of revenge: Oldboy depicts cruelty and obsession in a grand and classical sense.
We begin the film on a rainy night in Seoul: an inebriated businessman named Oh Dae-su is detained in a police station for being drunk and disorderly. We learn through his ramblings that he is, in fact, a father, and that today is his young daughter’s birthday – he sits there in a pair of angel wings he has bought for her. Oh Dae-su is released when his friend comes to bail him out, and whilst the friend calls home to explain the situation, Oh Dae-su disappears into the middle of the night.
Fast forward two months, and Oh Dae-su is imprisoned in what looks like a cheap hotel room, with a bed, desk mirror, TV and gaudy wallpaper. Three times a day he is brought food which is deposited at a hatch at the bottom of cell door. Once a day, music plays, and valium gas is siphoned into his room – this means it is time to sleep. Sometimes, when he wakes from this gas-induced slumber, his room has been cleaned and his hair has been cut. We don’t know where Oh Dae-su is, or why he is there. Neither does he. He will be imprisoned there for fifteen years.
This routine continues, day after day. He fills journals with accounts of all his wrong doings and makes a list of all the people he has offended in an attempt to locate his captor. Why would someone do this to him? He beats the wall, he alternately rages and pleads with his faceless guards, to no avail. The TV in there becomes his whole life, and in an attempt to preserve his sanity, he trains his body by shodowboxing, and chips away at the wall with a chopstick. Fifteen years later, he finally breaks a small hole through the wall. He concludes that it will be a month until he can escape, but he does not need to wait until then: a few days later, he wakes up in a suitcase on top of a skyscraper.
Once outside, he wanders into a restaurant and meets a beautiful sushi chef, whom he later falls in love with. This meeting is initiated by a most extraordinary scene involving an octopus, which has received much critical interpretation since Oldboy’s release in 2003. Oh Dae-su demands to eat something that is alive, and an octopus is brought out: he eats it, and passes out. I like the theory that he wishes to consume a live octopus because he has been effectively ‘dead’ for fifteen years – he wants to consume its life. I like this interpretation, and I’m disappointed to hear that this scene will be omitted from the American remake.
I won’t include any more spoilers, but this is where the film really starts: the sushi chef takes him home, ushering in a long and torturous process of revenge heaped upon revenge. Oh Dae-su goes into the cell a wretched man, pitiful and useless. He comes out utterly consumed with the need to avenge himself on his captor, who in turn, is consumed with the need to avenge himself on Oh Dae-su.
Oldboy forces you into the most extreme recesses of human depravity. Whilst it lacks the physical brutality of Chan’s often overlooked Sympathy for Mister Vengeance, its diobolical plot twists and turns and claustrophobic sadism add a new layer of torment to the genre. The film is relentless – we’d like to look away but we cant; Oldboy grabs you by the throat and stares coldly into your eyes. The plot coils in on itself, painfully exposing layer upon layer until we reach the bitter core: it’s a revenge film of grand proportions, and one of the best and most shocking of its kind.