Written by Hwang Jo-yun, Lim Jun-hyung, and Park Chan-wook
Directed by Park Chan-wook
It’s hard to pinpoint just when exactly American audiences got turned on to South Korean cinema. This year’s Parasite did wonders in spotlighting the great working coming out of that country. But back in the early 2000s, Oldboy was a film that seemed to grab the attention of audiences and not let go. Seventeen years later, it is still a harrowing experience, a combination of fantastic fight choreography and a nightmarish baroque plot of betrayal and other terrible things.
Oh Dae-su is a businessman with no regard for those around him. In 1988, he’s arrested for drunken and disorderly conduct, missing his toddler daughter’s birthday. His friend Joo-hwan bails him out, and while he’s talking on a payphone, Dae-su vanishes. The businessman wakes up in a strange hotel room that’s he locked inside of and quickly realizes he may be here until he dies. Fifteen years pass while Dae-su goes through various stages of mental breakdown, hallucinating bugs crawling over his skin and then resolving himself to escape. His only connection to the outside world is the television on which he learns of his wife’s murder and how Dae-su is framed for it using his own fingerprints.
One day, out of nowhere, Dae-su is released on a rooftop and immediately goes about reveling in the freedoms and sensations he has missed out on. He’s approached by a homeless man who was paid to give him a cell phone and a wallet full of money. Dae-su pigs out on sushi, where he meets Mid-do, the restaurant’s chef. Mid-do helps the man track down his daughter, she was adopted by a Swedish couple and lives there now. Always nagging at the back of Dae-su’s mind is the question of who did this to him and why. Slowly but surely, the mystery unravels, revealing even worse traps that were put in place by his tormentor.
Oldboy is a film that seeks to explore the worst aspects of the human soul. There are moments of authentic joy, meditations on the small freedoms and experiences we take for granted and would treasure if they were taken from us. However, the core of the film is bleak and posits that people with money and power can break an ordinary person with no consequence. Revenge consumes the mind and body of both the protagonist and his enemy until it obliterates them both. The things our villain takes pleasure in are sickening, twisting the metaphorical blade into Dae-su’s ribs as he continues to deconstruct his humanity fifteen years after taking everything from him.
The story feels classical, the type of narrative spun in ancient Greece, and resonating across cultures and time. Director Park Chan-wook heightens this element with a highly stylized camera and populating his world with larger than life figures. In some ways, this world is almost like a comic book, characters moving through framed panels. There is an iconic hallway fight scene that is filmed from the side, like a cutaway of the building. Transitions make use of the computer technology of the day to spills characters into one moment and another. There is a beautiful scene where we go from an apartment conversation to seeing a subway train coming towards the screen as we transition locations.
Oldboy is a classic Gothic horror film, injected with film noir pulp. The monster is a human being whose supernatural abilities come from his money and his narcissistic sociopathy. The backstory revealed as Dae-su begins to remember his youth, and what led to his enemy’s want for revenge brings us into a twisted territory. There’s moral ambiguity about if Dae-su did anything wrong. He did witness something wrong and never went to an adult about it. Instead, he aided in spreading rumors that led to a classmate’s death. Chan-wook purposefully remains ambiguous about the fault of the evil acts that take place in this film. It’s up to the audience to determine who was deserving of what or if ultimately, there is no meaning in such a nihilistic cold & cruel world.