There are two kinds of Korean movies: Those that are messed up, and those that are seriously messed up. Of the Korean cinema I’ve seen, it all involves some combination of mind games, perversity, brutality, graphic violence, and emotional turmoil. I am sure there is some Korean film out there that’s all about lovely people having a nice time in a pleasant setting, but you’d have to jump to an alternate dimension to see it. Not that I’m complaining; there is something raw and uncompromising to the examples of Korean cinema I’ve seen so far, and I have very much enjoyed what I’ve seen, even if I must admit that these kinds of movies are not for everyone. But among them, my favorite remains my introduction to Korean film (and boy, what an introduction it was): Oldboy.
The story takes place in Seoul, 1988, when a drunk businessman named Dae-su is kidnapped on his daughter’s 4th birthday and wakes up in a hotel room that has been and turned into some kind of prison cell. He has no idea why he is being held there, but he sees on the television a news report that his wife has been murdered and that he is the prime suspect. Bewildered and outraged, Dae-su obsessively works out, practices boxing and dreams of revenge. Exactly 15 years after his kidnapping, he is set free. As he wanders the city, he is given a cell phone on which he receives taunting calls by his captor, and so Dae-su begins searching for whoever was responsible for his imprisonment. Wild-haired, hardened and thirsty for revenge, Dae-su meets a lovely young chef named Mi-do, who first helps him in his search, and later, becomes his lover. Eventually, Dae-su does meet his captor, and he does find out why he was put into prison. But he will learn that his being imprisoned was just a means to an end, and the end is something he cannot possible understand until he realizes it is not he who is seeking revenge. He is the subject of another’s retribution. And it is a most horrible retribution, indeed.
Oldboy is the second movie of director Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance. All three are tales of those who have been wronged and have resorted to obtaining justice through extreme and often convoluted means. All three are fantastic films, but Oldboy is perhaps the most visceral and least straightforward of them. It is a deep look not just at the act of revenge, but at why we feel compelled to inflict it upon each other, what remains of us once we have satisfied our need for others to suffer for their crimes, and what it means to live with the transgressions we have committed, both knowingly and unknowingly. If you are looking for a by-the-numbers revenge flick, you will not find it here. But you will be hard-pressed to find a better movie about vengeance anywhere.
Perhaps the most famous and enjoyable scene of the movie is an incredible fight sequence where Dae-su not only finds the private prison where he was kept, but after torturing its so-called warden for information, his way out is blocked by at least a dozen guys brandishing various weapons. Dae-su is armed with a claw hammer, 15 years of working out and a head full of bad intentions. He isn’t just ready for this fight. He’s been hoping for it. What follows is a fight scene like few others; set in a long, narrow hallway, it plays out like a side-scrolling video game. Savage, dirty and hardly the apex of martial skill, the fight is what you might expect when a guy hardened by confinement and with nothing to lose decides to see how far he can get on physical toughness, raw guts and killer instinct on display. Pretty far, it turns out. At least to the exit elevator.
What’s so great about the scene (filmed in a single, unbroken take, by the way) is that it happens in the middle of the movie and is kind of an outlier to the story. Oldboy isn’t a series of battles where Dae-su beats the hell out of his tormentors. He is a guy honed to a knife edge, but with little to cut—the mystery he’s trying to unravel isn’t kept from him by a phalanx of hostile goons, but by multiple layers of memory, understanding and revelation that prove just how much Dae-su’s time in prison did not prepare him for the challenges he would face. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The moment of truth comes near the end, after we have seen a stunning reversal in the story. Without giving anything away, this is a fairly shocking revelation that has prevented me from watching the movie too many times again simply because knowing the full deal going into this movie makes certain parts of it very, very hard to watch. And that’s not even counting a scene where we watch an emotionally numb Dae-su devour a live, real octopus. But it’s worth watching at least once.
Once there are no more secrets left to reveal in the story, Dae-su must decide whether he will keep a few of his own, and he commits to it in a most graphic and desperate manner. In the movie’s final moments, he meets with Mi-do after having not seen her in a while. They have both been through the ringer, and their reunion is one of the most heartbreaking things ever put to screen, in part because we have so little to go on. The scene is too ambiguous to deliver satisfactory closure. But that is the point: life rarely has tidy endings, especially when we are in the business of destroying the lives of others. Once we cross that line, there can be no simple, perfect ending for any of us.