November 23rd, 2006
Critical consensus has it that this is a better movie than Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but I’m not sure if I agree.
It is played in broader strokes, like a comic book, and in fact it is based on a Japanese Manga.
Oh-Daesu (Choi Min-sik) is inexplicably kidnapped and imprisoned in a hotel room for 15 years, where he learns from TV that his wife and daughter have been killed and that he is the only suspect. He passes the time watching TV, teaching himself martial arts, and planning his revenge. Every few weeks he is gassed and given a haircut, his room is cleaned, and he receives post-hypnotic conditioning.
Here is Oh-Daesu before he has had his haircut.
Finally Oh-Daesu is released and the film gets crazy. Deposited on a high-rise rooftop he immediately rescues a suicidal jumper and, Ancient Mariner-like, forces him to listen to his story. When the story is done the jumper wants to tell Oh-Daesu his own story, but Oh-Daesu isn’t interested. He gets on the elevator and heads down. When he reaches the bottom he is wearing the sunglasses that were formerly on the face of the hysterical woman he rode down with, and the jumper goes over anyway. This scene sets the pace and the darkly funny tone of the rest of the movie.
Oh-Daesu goes to a sushi shop and eats a live octopus. This is a shocking scene, perhaps less so if you are aware that Koreans enjoy live octopus as a delicacy; but in Korea they cut it into small pieces. Oh-Daesu gobbles his octopus whole.
In the sushi shop Oh-Daesu meets the young sushi chef Mido, who takes him home. I’m not going to give it away but don’t forget about the post-hypnotic conditioning.
As in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance the plot of Oldboy revolves around two parties, each wanting revenge against the other. Oh-Daesu’s mysterious captor soon reveals himself and challenges Oh-Daesu to discover the reason for his imprisonment. Oh-Daesu has five days. If he fails, Mido will die.
Here’s Mido trying on some angel wings. They don’t fit.
In the end this film goes way over the top, and if you like it as I do, that is a large part of its appeal.
For example, in a parody of side-scrolling video games like Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers, Oh-Daesu takes on a huge mob of attackers with a knife in his back and only a hammer for a weapon. Needless to say he defeats them all. The whole thing is done in one shot.
The plot twist when it comes is not Shakespearean but Sophoclean. Oh-Daesu’s crime is that he once talked too much. Yes those are scissors.
Park Chan-wook’s films are almost unbelievably dark and violent, and sometimes they are almost unwatchable, although they can be funny too. I like this strong brew but sometimes they leave me wanting to see something warmer and softer, like the late Robert Altman’s brilliant Prairie Home Companion.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to stick with Park. I think he’s the real thing.
Next: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.