A Lean, Mean Shakespearean Machine

Oldboy

In the room with Dae-su Oh is the man who held him captive for 15 years. If the guy’s lucky, he’ll merely be strangled. More likely, he’ll be tortured via amateur tooth extraction until he explains why he abducted and imprisoned Dae-su.

But the captor has the upper hand. He shows the wild-haired Dae-su a remote control. The device, he explains, can turn off his pacemaker. Dae-su has a choice: He can back off, knowing that he might get his answers, his revenge, one, or neither; or he can proceed under the threat that his tormentor will kill himself right then and there, denying him understanding.

Which is more important when all you valued has been ripped away: retribution or knowledge? Is either satisfactory?

These are the basic questions posed repeatedly in director/co-writer Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. To paraphrase Dae-su’s captor: They are the wrong questions, intriguing but based in emotional death and the past. Ultimately, Oldboy asks two things far more profound and grounded in the present: How far would you go to protect something you love? And how much would you sacrifice to atone for sins real or perceived?

That Oldboy works at all is surprising. It’s hilariously contrived, wildly improbable, and at times downright goofy in its broad comedy, most of it based in Dae-su’s unleashed id. The movie’s underlying self-seriousness runs so deep that it threatens to become its own form of silliness.

And its pitch is constant extremity, from acute rage to blubbering desperation. Then there’s the main orchestral theme — lovely, longing, and nearly pastoral with its simple string and clarinet lines. (It would fit comfortably on the soundtrack to Antonia’s Line.)

Yet the effect is not tonal incongruity, but a messy mix of emotions that’s true to its protagonist. As troubling and heavy as much of Oldboy is, the movie refreshingly has a sense of humor, but one that flows naturally from its characters and situations. This is a complex work in which seemingly incompatible elements add something to a whole whose form and manner reflect essential qualities of Dae-su: driven, lost, searching, slightly unhinged and unbalanced — an emotional kamikaze.

In its nakedness, Oldboy reminded me most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Neither movie believes in subtlety. Both are aggressively reckless works, and their audacity and ludicrousness are constantly threatening to derail them.

That last sentence is meant purely as praise; when a filmmaker takes genuine risks — when all notions of safeness are thrown out — and somehow not only succeeds but manages to do it with a clarity of vision and sureness of footing, it’s thrilling and miraculous. Park’s 2003 movie (which arrived in the United States in 2005) is thrilling and miraculous.

Put another way: In a fundamentally serious movie, when it rains frogs (as in Magnolia), or when a man armed only with a hammer battles and defeats a small army of goons (as in Oldboy), the filmmaker wins over an audience through sheer force of will and confidence. Viewers can smell the faintest whiff of self-doubt, and they instinctively recoil — breaking the spell of a picture.

Park’s direction is, in the manner of Tarantino, showy, but it also has a fevered authenticity to justify it. He employs a narrative strategy of disorientation, and the film’s difficulty makes perfect sense in the context of a prisoner who has spent 15 years without human contact. The ground is continually shifting under both the main character’s and the audience’s feet.

Dae-su (a convincingly feral Min-ski Choi) is a businessman. On his daughter’s birthday, he goes on a bender and gets arrested. When the police let him go, he’s abducted and imprisoned in what looks like a hotel room. Sometimes sleeping gas is piped in, and he is given a haircut. He is never told why he is being held. He writes down the names of everybody he remembers wronging, trying to figure out who might have done this to him. The list is long.

After 15 years, he is released, left on a rooftop, where he terrorizes a man there to jump off the building. At a restaurant, he devours a live octopus whole. In the home of a female chef (Hye-jeong Kang, appealingly unpolished and annoyingly needy), he approaches her sexually with the same un-self-conscious aggression that he showed the cephalopod. They quickly fall in love.

Dae-su plunges headlong into his own brand of brute detection and soon stumbles upon his tormentor. The megalomanic antagonist (a tittering Ji-tae Yu) is everything Dae-su is not — refined, calculating, clever, giddy, and self-satisfied. He offers a cryptic clue about the imprisonment: The broken man who barely speaks these days was locked up for a decade and a half because he talked too much.

The setup is intriguing but recycled. Oldboy mixes the intricate, unlikely test traps of The Game with the cold-blooded vengeance of The Crow and the sadism of Saw.

And when it gets past that, it invokes age-old themes and motifs related to punishment, revenge, guilt, and tragedy, leading to some obvious adjectives: mythic, Shakespearean, operatic. Oldboy is marketed as “Asia extreme” cinema, but it’s part of a tradition that dates back millennia; Park’s movie bears more than a passing resemblance to Oedipus and other grotesque stories from antiquity.

What distinguishes Oldboy is its shocking heart, and the level of emotional and moral resonance it achieves in spite of how gruesome (and knowingly hip) it is. The movie and Dae-su build themselves up with such layers of toughness that their tenderness, vulnerability, and agony are unexpected but affecting.

And they’re wholly appropriate for a movie that, finally, concerns itself with the implications and problems of obsession and tunnel vision. For much of the film’s running time, there’s nothing noble or heroic about Dae-su. He’s merely an avenger, jacked up on rage, so fixed on his target that he cannot see that he might as well be dead for the amount of genuine living that he does.

But, crucially, Dae-su understands what he has become and what he has done. He knows that he has trespassed against people, and, in the end, he’s willing to take responsibility, to make outsize amends, to punish himself. In a final confrontation — a shocking tumult of soliloquies, admissions, secrets, pleas, and blood, loaded with direct actions and complicated motivations — Dae-su reveals himself to be a very human monster.

In contrast, his foil is a testament to the soul-sucking power of holding a grudge, and of blaming others for one’s own sins.

Refreshingly, the story doesn’t end when the movie does — an acknowledgement that the events in the film have repercussions beyond it. Park and his co-writers have given Oldboy a hopeful-on-the-surface denouement that raises a new set of questions: Is it possible to separate our monstrous side from our human side? And can sins accidental and intentional truly be erased?

Nice review. I like it when the reviewer mentions a film that’s unexpected, like Magnolia here.

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