It's easy to call Oldboy a movie about a revenge. It is, after all. Lee Woo-Jin wants revenge on Oh Dae-Su, Oh Dae-Su doesn't realize it for much of the film, but he wants revenge on Lee Woo-Jin. And each man is changed tremendously in the process. Lee Woo-Jin is not the nerdy photographer we see in flashbacks, but a suave millionaire who exacts his plan in style. Oh Dae-Su is not the pudgy lech we see causing trouble at the police station in the film's beginning, but a fearless fighter and nigh-detective with real purpose in his life. And yet, neither of them is better for it.
What's striking is that the spark that begins this conflagration is so tiny. Works like Match Point and Breaking Bad have toyed with themes about tiny events and small coincidences having outsized effects on people's lives. But Oldboy outpaces them on this front. Oh Dae-Su is almost done with his school, moving on. When he sees two people fooling around by chance, he absent-mindedly repeats the gossip to his friend, barely even aware of who they were or what he was seeing. And this small action led to innumerable deaths, torture of the living both psychological and physical, and irrevocable changes for Oh Dae-Su and the lives of the people he's touched.
The hollow consumption of revenge has been examined by more than a few works, stretching back at least as far as The Scarlet Letter and the name-checked Count of Monte Cristo. But there's something bitterly ironic about all this fuss, the entire impetus from the film, beginning with some punk kid thoughtlessly relaying some vague information about something he saw but didn't really process, appreciate, or care about. The film drives the irony home by having Oh Dae-Su scribble a list of his possible enemies in his journals, and have his best friend mention the hundreds of people's lives he's ruined, and instead of the revenge stemming from his many misdeeds, it's from an offhand comment that, unbeknownst to him, had a butterfly effect.
I think that's why this film stays with me a bit. I think it's why, beyond the twists that give it a memorable "holy crap" moment, the bloody end stands out so much. Because the entire enterprise is framed as so empty, so fruitless, so damaging to all involved. Lee Woo-Jin is desperately trying to rectify the grief he feels for the loss of his sister and lover. And yet once he has, once his plan reaches fruition, he asks what he has to live for, imagines her death once more, and kills himself, laden with the realization that all his grand plans cannot heal those wounds.
And he puts Oh Dae-Su in the same position, realizing that his quest for revenge was just as much a sham, that he's done more damage by becoming this monster than if he'd simply died, or gone to live his life, or never bothered to go on this Herculean (or Batman-esque) attempt to get to the bottom of what happened. That's why at the end of the film, he asks to forget, he asks to wipe away the revenge, wipe away that past rather than let it linger with him, to clear his heart of the anger and scars inflicted upon him over the past fifteen years. And all of this, every last bit of it, begins with a brief word to a gossip that the original informant didn't even remember. The absurdity of it, the senselessness of it, lingers far beyond the shock of the film's reveals.
Despite that, it's a film that could run on plot alone. The story of a man trapped without knowledge of why or by whom, who is freed and sets out to find his captor, works at an elemental level to rope in the viewer. The opening segment depicting Oh Dae-Su's is enthralling as a psychological experiment, making us wonder what it would be like to go through something so isolating and dehumanizing. It puts us on Oh Dae-Su's side as we too wonder who would do this to him, why they did it, and hope that he gets his revenge. There's a relentless momentum to the film, that parcels out these discoveries well along the way, while guiding us through Oh Dae-Su's maladjusted reentry into the world.
Park Chan-Wook's direction adds to the atmosphere of the film with his deft camera work and creative choices in presentation. The film is bathed in dingy, Fincher-esque greens and blues that convey the grittiness of the proceedings. While the long-take fight scene is the most notable visual flourish in the film, Chan-Wook uses a great deal of creative framing to convey the emotions of his scenes, from layering Dae-Su, Woo-Jin, and the picture of Woo-Jin's sister in the same scene, to the transitions that blend one scene into another.
There are, of course, those shocking reveals. Watching the film for the second time takes away the jaw-dropping reaction at the true identity of Mi-do. (Who, on second watch, feels less developed than I remembered). But to the film's credit, the twist still works on rewatch because of the effect it has on Oh Dae-Su. His aghast response, his near insanity that once again throws him into vacillations between seeking pity and mercy and making threats and vows of retribution, while over the top, still has power even if the twist itself is muted.
There's a degree of magical realism to Oldboy. The idea that Lee Woo-Jin could pull off his convoluted scheme even with the seemingly unlimited resources at his disposal, that hypnosis could work as well and as clearly as depicted in the film, that all the players would play their roles as necessary for everything the fall the way they did is more than a little unrealistic. And yet it works because more than anything, Oldboy feels like a parable, a fable, rather than a story that aims towards realism.
It is a fable about revenge, taking whatever liberties with plausibility it needs to in order to thread the needle of its message, of the hollowed out emptiness of anger and revenge and its inability to make up for loss. The tragedy is amplified by the nigh-random incident that sets it all into motion. But Oldboy is about more than revenge. It's about the compromises we make, about the lies we tell ourselves, about the way small events can shift the tides of lives, and about the people we can become when the baser elements within us--The Monster and the Calculating Avengers--consume us.
My favourite movie. This has so much fighting in it that I don't know what to do, and Choi Min-Sik has become one of my favourite actors. This film is BRUTAL
Oldboy is a Fantastic movie! This is a revenge film about a man named Oh Dae-Su, Played brilliantly by Choi Min-sik, who seeks revenge after being trapped in a cell for 15 years. After being released randomly with nothing more than lots of money and a phone, he must find out who did this and why this all occured.
The basic gist is that a variety of violent set pieces occur for him to find out who did all this to him. One of the most famous scenes in cinema come from this movie, THE one-take fight scene in the hall way. It has a place in cinematic history and for good reason. The co-ordination with the stunt team, camera man and main actors must have been pain staking and I can appreciate the level of detail needed to really portray the visceral nature of the scene.
Choi Min-Sik, again, was a stand out performance. He's able to portray two sides of the character, the drunken father, as well as, the harden prisoner. The supporting actors also did a fantastic job with each performance. Chan-wook Park was able to get an emotional performance for each of the actors and that has got to be commended.
The cinematography and lighting was superb with the outside being more saturated and lively in comparison to the dingy and claustrophobic environments of the interior. The plot was also fantastic, with the ending being particularly surprising and disturbing. The writing was fantastic and each character was well-developed and well-written.
This movie is a master piece in cinema. And if you appreciate film as an art form, you have to watch this movie.
First east asian movie I saw. One word to describe it. PERFECT!!