“15 years of imprisonment, five days of vengeance”
Director: Chan-wook Park
Cast: Min-sik Choi, Ji-tae Yu, Hye-jeong Kang
Synopsis: After being kidnapped and imprisoned for 15 years, Oh Dae-Su is released, only to find that he must find his captor in 5 days.
Chan-wook Park’s revenge opus certainly starts with a bang as we meet the film’s anti-hero Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) holding a man over the edge of a tower block by his tie. What we see — or what we think we see — is misleading, however, and gives us an appropriate introduction to Park’s remarkable yet flawed saga. The opening scene echoes a much later, pivotal, moment that holds the key to the entire mystery, and neatly encapsulates one of the themes of Oldboy — the passing of time, its resonance, the power with which control of another person’s time endows us, the manner in which what is a trivial moment in time for one person can be the irreversible beginning of life-altering tragedy for another. Oldboy is also a study of revenge, of its nature, and of the way vengeance can destroy the person who seeks it more completely than the person on whom it is intended.
Immediately after the opening scene Park takes us back fifteen years to meet a much different Oh Dae-su; an overweight drunken buffoon handcuffed to the wall of a police station because of his disruptive behaviour. Bailed out by a friend, Dae-su disappears during the course of a telephone conversation, and awakens to find himself in a prison cell decked out like a cheap hotel room. This room will be his home for a decade-and-a-half during which his only contact with the outside world is via TV. He occupies his time by keeping a journal in which he records all his previous misdeeds and the people with whom he has come into conflict, by toughening his fists against the walls of his cell, and by planning his escape thanks to an additional chopstick delivered with his meal one day. Then, just as he is about to make his escape, Dae-su is released…
Bursting from a suitcase as if being reborn into the world, he finds himself on the grassy roof of a tower block that overlooks the street from which he was abducted. On the rooftop is a man contemplating suicide — which is where we came in…
Dae-Su’s ultimate failure to escape from his prison sets a precedent that runs throughout the movie: he fails in everything he sets out to achieve, largely because he is just a puppet — the target of revenge, not its architect.
Asian movies are probably the most inventive in the world at present. Unlike Hollywood’s Majors, which too often find themselves shackled by their fear of the influence of outspoken pressure groups and moralistic politics, Asian filmmakers are free to explore subjects — and show scenes — from which Hollywood would shrink (which leaves one fearful for the quality of the proposed American remake of this film). This film is typical of that creative freedom. The violence is both cartoonish and sadistic, and is often depicted as of a viscerally epic nature (such as the one-take sequence in the corridor of Oh Dae-su’s former prison) or coolly balletic (as in his encounter with a gang of street punks). Park’s camera lingers greedily on a close up of a gangster’s teeth being extracted with a claw hammer, and we are treated to a scene of Oh Dae-Su tearing the head off a live squid and chewing manfully as its tentacles shiver and curl around his mouth. And yet this violence never seems gratuitous or out of place. While, when looked upon with a studied eye, the corridor fight-scene is more than a little unbelievable, by filming it Park is staying true to the film’s Manga roots. Like the stories in those comic books, the characters in Oldboy seem to operate on the periphery of a world that bears only a passing resemblance to our own. While this makes it easier for us to accept some of the more far-fetched aspects of the plot, it also distances us emotionally from the characters. Characters are all they are, ciphers, instruments of the storyteller wielded as professionally and dispassionately as that claw hammer. As with most films that rely on visceral impact to transport the viewer, the densely plotted story disguises a wealth of plot holes that only rise to the surface of the viewer’s consciousness after the deliberately ambiguous ending. Oh Dae-su’s actions become increasingly erratic as the tale unfolds and he comes closer to learning the truth. Given the motives that drive his character, his intense feelings for the winsome Mi-do after just a few days don’t ring true even after we are given an explanation for it but, as they are crucial to the eventual outcome, leave the impression that they have been shoehorned into the plot.
Visually, the film is stunning, with superlative camera-work from Jeong-hun Jeong, and Choi min-sik gives a towering performance as the embittered anti-hero. Ji-tae Yu, in a smaller but no less important role, lacks for much of the film the tragic persona for which his part cries. For my money, his character would have worked better had he been given a darker persona haunted by the events that have driven him to pursue such an elaborate act of revenge over so many years.
Despite these reservations about character and plot, the film is definitely a worthwhile addition to the growing number of imaginative and praiseworthy movies produced by Asian countries over the last couple of decades. I’ve a feeling that time may dull its reputation, that the talented Chan-wook Park has not yet reached the peak of his talent and will produce work in the future that will surpass Oldboy.