With a red band trailer circulating for Park Chan-wook’s vampiric new project THIRST I’ve been thinking about the series of films that took Park from the Asian cinema ghetto and placed him into the global, critical, consciousness. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy benefited from, and perhaps in its own way helped kick start, the western fascination with Korean cinema. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was one of the first modern Korean titles to receive a wide release in the United Kingdom, as part of the now defunct Tartan brand, but the influx of Korean cinema onto western shores seemed to happen around the time that Oldboy found its way onto western DVDs.
Bolstered by massive amounts of critical praise the film found itself even enjoying a limited theatrical run. Such was the success of Oldboy that Park Chan-wook went from being another anonymous Asian director to actually having people actively waiting for his next release. This change in perception was almost certainly due to Oldboy itself, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance whilst being a fantastic film was savaged by most reviewers largely due to the fact it’s subtle and reflective look on the cyclical nature of violence was marketed alongside the hyper violence of Takashi Miike and the perversion of Shinya Tsukamoto on Tartan’s infamous Asia Extreme catalogue. So six years after release how does the film that turned Park Chan-wook from an enfant-terrible into a critical darling hold up and does it deserve a place in the top 20 films of the 00s?
Of course given that this is was a film released in 2003 I’m going to not hold back on the spoilers so if you’ve never seen the film I’d flitter off elsewhere.
The most striking thing about Oldboy is how rock solid the thematics of the piece are in contrast to how experimental the film was at times. Chan-wook’s previous films were remarkably formal affairs, offering striking cinematography and character focused storytelling over cinematic tics and tricks. Whilst still retaining some of his previous formalism Oldboy also had a kitchen sink style feel to it at times. For every effect that works seamlessly, for example the use of the bleach bypass process to accentuate the putrefied colour scheme of the film is used perfectly to create a feeling of rotten elegance, there is an effect where you understand the intent but can question the quality. Oh Dae-Su’s descent into madness as he is held captive is perfectly captured by claustrophobic camera angles and Choi Min-sik’s delirious performance and noirish voice-over and is almost sabotaged by crude and over zealous use of CGI at one point. But even with a few stylistic missteps the film is still absolute stunning to look at. As mentioned earlier the film employs the bleach bypass process used by Darius Khondji in films like Se7en and combines it with a colour scheme of festering greens and dark reds to create a look that is rotten and decadent at the same time. It’s a beautiful baroque painting of a film that’s been left to curl and yellow in a dank basement and the look suits the subject perfectly, but really despite being a visually astonishing film Oldboy’s power comes from its narrative and thematic heft.
Oldboy plays a number of narrative tricks, the first being the sleight of hand involving the imprisonment of its hero Oh Dae-Su who is introduced at his most iconic, holding a man from the precipice of a tall building by his tie, before flashing back to his doughy, drunken, self locked up at a police station. This incarceration is going to be a prevalent theme throughout the film as Oh Dae-Su moves from the confines of the police station to the confines of his private prison and then the metaphysical confines of the machinations of his nemesis Lee Woo-jin. With an initial viewing we’re lead to lead to believe that Oh Dae-Su’s incarceration in a private prison is the set-up for a revenge story, his training regimes and attempted escapes giving us a picture of a man who has shaped himself from slovenly normality into a bestial force of nature. The transformation, both physically and mentally, of Oh Dae-Su is the primary concern of the first act and it serves to align our sympathies with the character. Oh Dae-Su is the central protagonist of the film and he occupies at least 90% of the scenes in the film and as such we find ourselves relating to him despite early revelations that he’s not the most pleasant person in the world. This relatability is important with Oh Dae-Su because we have to witness his transgressions, without being repulsed by them. In a standard revenge film Oh Dae-Su’s brutality and single mindedness would be a virtue, in Oldboy his transformation into a lean, mean, vengeance getting machine is part and parcel of Lee Woo-Jin’s ultimate victory
The end of the film suggests a traditional happy ending. The villain has been dispatched, his henchman overpowered and killed, and the hero is going to spend the rest of his life with the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately in Oldboy’s case the villain killed himself after achieving all of his goals and the hero has chosen to carry on an incestuous relationship with his daughter rather than face the truth of his predicament. The end of Oldboy, with Oh Dae-Su first being reduced to a primal beast like state and then begging to have the truth of his crimes erased from his memory completely changes the the nature of the revenge story at the films heart. The ending of the film switches the focus of vengeance from Oh Dae-Su to Lee Woo-jin and paints the two characters in different lights. Whilst Lee Woo-jin is undoubtedly still the villain of the piece, his heart ache and emotional investment in his scheme makes his revenge seem far more ‘earned’ than the brutish vengeance demanded by Oh Dae-Su. Lee Woo-jin is quite obviously insane and his desire for vengeance comes from a place that is both irrational and utterly rational. Oh Dae-Su’s initial crime is a forgettable moment of gossip, but the ramifications of this action (the death of Lee Woo-jin’s sister and, arguably, the destruction of Lee Woo-jin himself) are far too significant for Lee Woo-jin to accept. When contrasting the two characters it becomes interesting to see that Lee Woo-jin’s violence and insidiousness is dictated by love, whereas Oh Dae-Su’s violence and brutality are dictated by a logic skewed by a decade and a half of imprisonment. Lee Woo-jin is guilty of incest himself and is for all intents and purposes the villain of the piece, but his systematic destruction of Oh Dae-Su as a person is so complete that it becomes difficult to root for the films hero, his final, awful, decision just compounding this problem.
Going back to my initial point about narrative tricks, the greatest trick the film plays is using the language of archetypal revenge movies to align the audience with a character who starts out as vaguely repugnant and is then reduced his most base and brutish form. Oh Dae-Su’s actions are never pleasant (from his oafish behaviour in the police station, to the revelation of all of his enemies, to the way he eats a live squid, to his attempted rape of Mido, to his brutal torture techniques through to his final decision to live with his incestuous relationship) but the use of subjective camera, the use of cinematic tropes, Choi Min-sik’s powerhouse performance and the use of music create a character who is lamentable and almost charming in his singularity of purpose. Lee Woo-jin is weird and aloof throughout the film, Oh Dae-Su in contrast is down to earth and given these two archetypes we as the viewer tend to gravitate towards the earthy and knowable. As such we find ourselves on Oh Dae-Su’s side and stylistic choices like the one shot corridor fight create heroic parallels for Oh Dae-Su whilst the use of Vivaldi in the torture scene makes a moment that should be horrifying exhilirating instead. In fact Yeong Wook-jo’s score is used to accentuate character beats and cement audience expectations at every turn. Oh Dae-Su’s music is punchy and taut whilst the themes associated with Lee Woo-jin are more formalised and often far more melancholic. We’re even given hints as to the true nature of Mido through the melancholic waltz which accompanies some of her scenes.
As such the entire point of the film is to question our notion of revenge and vengeance. The trilogy of films Park Chan-wook concerning the theme of vengeance would all look at the nature of revenge in different ways. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance took a nihilistic view on the dehumanising effect of vengeance and retribution, Lady Vengeance examined just who deserved vengeance and who was entitled to become a punisher, Oldboy changed our notions on what exactly we expected from a revenge film. Despite the journey being centred on Oh Dae-Su the ultimate revenge was had by the villain of the piece and in doing so he burdened the hero with all of his own crimes. Lee Woo-jin’s murderous nature and incestous relationships were replicated in Oh Dae-Su against his will, Oh Dae-Su’s quest for vengeance an extension of the prison he had spent a decade and a half in. The more Oh Dae-Su struggles to find the truth the more he follows the path Lee Woo-jin has set for him.
Oldboy is a film about men and the monsters they can become due to obsession. From Oh Dae-Su’s bestial transformation, to the calculating inhumanity of Lee Woo-jin. It’s a film powered by three fantastic central performances (Choi Min-sik as Oh Dae-Su, Yu Ji-tae as Lee Woo-jin and Kang Hye-jeong as Mido) and given shape and form by the intellect of Park Chan-wook. It’s a beautiful, jacobean tragedy of a film, with vibrant set design conflicting with the rot of the bleach bypass process and the eulogised score. It’s beautiful, primal, vulgar and intellectual.