Every time I see an arrogant and unnecessary remake, I automatically feel the responsibility to rewatch the original material. It happened with Criminal, a really awful version of the Argentinian gem Nueve Reinas. Secret in Their Eyes and The Wicker Man, yes the one with “the Cage” on the cage and the bees.
So, of course, after seeing the failed, borderline racist, homophobic Spike Lee version, even rejected by Lee himself, I had no choice but to revisit what is probably the most famous Korean film of all time: Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.
Vengeance Trilogy Chan-Wook Park
And once again, I understand how this precious martyrdom shows that critics and audience can enjoy masochism. Few masterpieces are so definitively anti-crowdpleasers.
Films rarely have shown the magnitude of the destructive power of revenge as Oldboy, the second in Chan-Wook’s thematic trilogy, initiated by Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and culminating in Lady Vengeance (2005).
Based on the Japanese manga created by Nobuaki Minegishi and Garon Tsuchiya, Oldboy tells the story of Oh Dae-su. A chaotic executive and irresponsible father who, without any explanation, is kidnapped and confined to a precarious hostel room for 15 years.
Through the years, Oh Dae-su establishes an emotional link with a terrifying painting called “Man of Sorrows” by Belgian painter James Ensor. It depicts a bloody and deformed Christ with a facial expression that may be a smile or an expression of horrendous pain. For greater effect, the painting is completed with an excerpt from the poem “Solitude” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox: “Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone”.
The context is horrifying, and seeing him embrace that mantra, perfecting that smile of pain is devastating.
Thanks to his little TV, Oh learns that his wife has been murdered and he’s been framed as the perpetrator. Devastated, he takes refuge in the only coping mechanism possible in his incomprehensibly unjust and cruel reality, revenge. Excessive TV consumption lead him to develop virtual skills. Shadowboxing, hardened hands and an eternal thirst for justice have given him a second wind.
But Oh is far from controlling his own actions. In a completely baffling move, he is suddenly released, and in the possession of a cell phone and a considerable amount of money.
After quickly giving up on the search for his daughter–who reportedly had been adopted by a Swedish couple–Oh Dae-su focuses on revenge.
But the tragedy is just beginning. His revenge is doomed the moment his motivations were born of uncertainty.
Oldboy Revenge Symbolism
At times, Oldboy displays a not-so-subtle symbolism. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Oh Dae-su begins his journey devouring an entire living squid. It’s no surprise that Quentin Tarantino, President of the Jury of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, where Oldboy won the Grand Prix, was a big supporter of the film.
But unlike Tarantino’s films, violence in Oldboy is not based on gallons of blood or constant bone-breaking. But in a constant psychological tension that decants in a third act where the main character’s soul suffers a systematic demolition.
Oldboy, however, is not shy on explicit violence. Hammer in hand, Oh Dae-su, channeled by the great Choi Min-sik, makes his way through a legion of enemies in one of the most iconic, entertaining and violent sequences of all times.
Visceral vengeance and the villain
Oldboy is an absolute cruelty piece that works because of its cannibal structure. It’s the visceral vengeance dominated by a better-prepared retaliation. It’s the difference between a vengeance dominated by ego and a more fermented one, where pride and self-preservation aren’t priorities.
Yoo Ji-Tae’s Lee Woo-Jin is a memorable villain. His exaggerated and unfair personal revenge is not limited to inflicting hurt, but to recreating the conditions of the original tragedy. Woo-Jin shapes the life of his enemy to emulate parts of his own when he was the victim. It’s a cruel overkill, one designed with lots of money, time and dedication. It’s a tale of the impulsiveness destroyed by the planning.
I have to dedicate at least a paragraph to Choi Min-Sik’s feat. His character required a special emotional duality, and his grandiose interpretation hits the mark. In seconds, he is able to transform from worthy hero to miserable and servile dog. And he does it without ever losing the audience’s sympathy no matter how extreme his almost-schizoid and weirdly radical actions. Even in moments when the pace is focused on black humor, Min-Sik perfectly navigates Chan-wook’s shots with an enviable dignity.
One of Oldboy’s triumphs is that it works for the casual viewer as for the obsessive semiotic. For example, Park Chan-wook has enhanced the original manga creating a work with references to Oedipus the King’s tragedy.
Towards the end, Woo-Jin’s victory is irrefutable. He has forced his enemy to understand what it means to fall in love with a woman with filial ties. More than that, he gives him the tools to continue living in this incestuous relationship. For that, Oh has to consciously make the decision to erase his memory and continue to have a carnal relationship with his daughter.
At one point, Dae-su has the option of executing his revenge. But he prefers sparing the life of his enemy because his wounded ego needs answers. He needs the truth. And this truth will end up destroying him.
Tragic Smile and Brutal outcome
Dae-su, defeated at every level, is a different man. His tongue, which has gotten him into trouble many times, is no longer a problem— self-mutilation was the terrible and muted answer. And to preserve his mental health, he now evades the truth rather than embrace it.
His tragic smile is the perfect end to this savage masterpiece. It’s an outcome that is both shockingly brutal and unconditionally happy.
Oldboy is one of the best examples of film as art. No matter how uncomfortable, cruel and devastating the story, if it’s well crafted, it can be a wonderful experience and an unforgettable piece.