By Jonathan Holin
Directed by Chan-wook Park
Oldboy is the second installment of Chan-Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy.
Where Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance was a straightforward, dramatic take on revenge, Oldboy forgoes some realism in favor of the stylistic. Here there is mystery, combat and violence, but Oldboy, at its heart tragedy in the classic sense, is a film only disguised as an action movie.
Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is a shambling, drunken mess. Handcuffed to a bench in a police station, he is missing his daughter’s birthday while his friend bails him out for what must have been some form of disorderly conduct. Moments later he disappears.
Fifteen years later Oh Dae-su stands on a rooftop holding a man over the precipice by his necktie. This man was about to commit suicide, but before he does Oh Dae-su has to tell him his story. He hasn’t spoken to another human being in fifteen years.
For a decade and a half he is kept in a room with a bed, a television and a notebook. He learns on the TV that his wife was murdered and evidence implicating him was found on the scene. His daughter has been adopted and moved to Europe. Every day he’s fed the same pot stickers and has only the tube for company. Every once in a while a tune plays, the room fills with gas, and he wakes up shaven. All the while he has no idea who is keeping him there, or why.
Oldboy really begins when Oh Dae-su is set free on the rooftop. All this time he has been planning revenge on his unknown tormentor. Using clues and the help of Mi-do, a young but renowned chef, he sets to tracking the person who imprisoned him.
Oh Dae-su becomes wrapped in a twisted game of cat and mouse. The sole purpose of his life has become to find outwho ruined his life and why. His fifteen years in solitude were only the beginning of his punishment, and arguably the more forgiving.
Like Sympathy, Oldboy has more grisly and wince-inducing action than western films are able to get away with. But the violence here, as perhaps excessive as it is, has a purpose. One fight scene, when Oh Dae-su returns to his prison, is almost like a ballet, and I don’t mean that it’s obviously choreographed, but that the action says something.
The mystery ensnares us too and we become driven by Oh Dae-su’s same singular purpose. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone,” are the words written below a painting that hangs in Oh Dae-su’s cell. As violent and brutal as some of the scenes are (including a man’s teeth being pulled out with the end of a hammer one by one) Oldboy strives to show that words have the truest power.