“올드보이 (Oldboy)”

“Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.”
– Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “The Way of the World”
(Quoted in the movie “Oldboy”)

[Warning: Extreme violence, and contains sexually explicit scenes, not for the faint-hearted.]

The South Korean movie industry is perhaps one of the most misunderstood movie industries in the world. It’s somewhat true to an extent that the South Korean media often produce sappy soap dramas, filled with fatalistic romance encounters, forceful tear inducing scenes, repetitive ballads that sing about unrequited love and tragic fates, car accidents, amnesia, the sudden revelation that your lover is actually your sibling (gasp!). Korean dramas are often so cliched to the point that one wonders why everyone even bother to watch it, since every (and I mean every) drama has roughly the same plots, the same character-types, the same setting, even similar songs sung by similar artists……

All sunshine and roses, the melodramatic bubbles of soap

But that’s beside the point, what I am about to review here, is simply put, one of the most mind-bending, shocking, tragic, and disturbing films that I have ever had the fortune (or is it misfortune?) to watch. “Oldboy”, or pronounced with a Korean accent, “Oldeuboi”, is a masterpiece, at least in my opinion, that is. It marks a turning point in the Korean movie industry in that it spawned a series of revenge thrillers, similar in genre, but different in its mechanisms, such as the equally masterful “달콤한 인생 (A Bittersweet Life)”, “아저씨 (The Man from Nowhere)”, “추격자 (The Chaser)”, “황해 (The Yellow Sea)”, “악마를 보았다 (I Saw the Devil) [Another favorite of mine]”, “똥파리 (Breathless)”, and many more.

(Most Korean revenge thrillers are notorious for their sado-masochistic violence, which present their bloodshed and tortures with an unflinching view, so beware, oh those who dare to enter. For once you get past the initial rites of entry, you will not leave unscathed. Come to think of it, such is the desensitization towards violence of contemporary times. Ah, the irony.)



Although “Oldboy”, once considered the most violent and the most sexually explicit Korean film there is, is now superseded in its content by many Korean films, such as “I Saw the Devil”, where its ultra-violent content has far surpassed that of “Oldboy”, it is still considered controversial because of its highly tragic content, which I will not reveal here for fear of spoiling the enjoyment of viewing this film in its entirety. It contains one of the best endings I have ever seen, and the execution of this is admirable, and not in the least bit disappointing , despite its awful revelation. In my humble opinion, the ending ranks up there along the likes of “The Shawshank Redemption” or “The Prestige”, albeit the two plottwists are entirely different, one tragic, the other euphoric. Other endings nowadays, such as from the films “The Usual Suspects”, “Now You See Me”, or even “Insidious”, are entirely unsatisfactory when compared to “Oldboy”, because these lack the crucial motivation of the characters (even if they have it, it is as shallow as it comes), ingenuity, and are entirely forceful while being unnecessary to the viewing experience, while the plot in “Oldboy” flows naturally, and the ending, necessary, and vital.

“Oldboy”, a 2003 South Korean film, directed by Park Chan Wook, tells a horrifying story of a man, seemingly innocent, being kidnapped and confined in the same hotel room for 15 years without knowing the reasons of his confinement. And so he trained himself in the room, preparing for the day when he is released in order to seek vengeance upon his unknown captors. As if his imprisonment isn’t mysterious enough, he is also mysteriously released and is told by his captor that he has five days to find the captor, and to search for the reason of his imprisonment. This is made all the more complicated as after his release, he falls for an attractive sushi chef. Thus begins his bewildering and bizarre journey of self-exploration.

Oh Dae-Su, the protagonist of the film, portrayed brilliantly and intensely by Choi Min Sik (who also portrayed the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”; I call him the Eastern Marlon Brando), is not a person who you will define as a hero. In fact, he is an anti-hero, a despicable human being, an alcoholic who skipped his daughter’s birthday in order to drink soju, who winded up in a police station for his drunk behaviors, displaying there his wild antics, before being kidnapped mysteriously. But for all his misbehavior and his totally rugged personality, we come to relate to him, for he is like one of us: imperfect, occasionally unruly, flawed. And when Oh is plunged into a web of conspiracy, where everything takes on a mysterious mask, where nothing is as it first seemed, we are confused along with him, and we can but watch helplessly while he walks the path of self-destruction, towards the ultimate tragedy: revenge.

Vengeance, one of the most satisfying of all human notions, is at once a despicable act, shunned by Buddhists, Christians, and most religions as well as ascetic philosophers alike for its harmful effects not only upon others, but upon oneself. But it is not without its cathartic effects; that we cannot deny. In fact, we feel a sense of justice as being served as we witness the downfall of another corrupted person. The proverbs, “revenge is a dish best served cold”, or “an eye for an eye,” which came from unknown ancient sources, paints revenge as a satisfactory act. But then again, another proverb, which states that, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves,” is equally true, for one does not simply avenge oneself without the forethought of a possible death of oneself. You see, in an act of revenge, you gain satisfaction after the enactment of vengeance, of violently pushing the other towards his downfall, or his death, but what does that make you afterwards? Won’t you become the same as the now-fallen person? And then, what next? Retribution does not simply end here, for the person’s heirs or friends will avenge the fallen person with similar wrath. Revenge is at once the most intimate act, an act of destruction in close-range, where one taps into unconscious reservoirs of primal instincts. But it is simultaneously an act of decay, the decadence of morals, of one’s self. For once the deed is done, the cycle continues, until one party completely collapses.

Perhaps it is as Machiavelli once said in “The Prince”: “People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.” But the world is seldom so perfect, and people often didn’t get their own say on how tomorrow will turn out to be. The world is indifferent towards our goals, our motivations, or our notions of good and evil. Unlike what Leibniz once said, that “this is the best of all possible worlds”, the world is a cruel place, and harsh towards the innocent. And Oh Dae-Su, at once the most oblivious person, may embrace this fact with vigor.

And this is not only a film about a person’s journey of self-destructive vengeance, it is also a tale of the consequences of our actions. Similar to what chaos theory proposes, that the smallest differences in initial conditions may yield a wide range of different outcomes (often unexpected and unpredictable), so too are our actions. I recall a news that happened several years ago (I forgot where), that an adolescent was forced to bleed him/herself to death after rumors started spreading that he/she was homosexual (which is in fact true, but this doesn’t make the deed all the less horrifying). Such are the consequences of our behaviors, that the most insignificant act, can lead to disastrous catastrophes. And by the end of the movie, one may question whether Oh is as innocent as it first seemed, or whether the faults are piled upon him by others, forcefully.

But perhaps the one theme that I liked the most is Oh Dae-Su’s obsession towards death. People who seek vengeance, who have nothing else to lose, have an obsession with death. They are enthralled by it, moved by it, revolted by it, yet helplessly lead by it. They proceed towards the destructive act with a tunnel vision, seeing nothing else but the notion of retribution, the death of others above all else, without regarding their personal well-being. Death for them is paradoxically both a rapturous ideal, and a rupture in their being. And this is the case with Oh, for after 15 years of imprisonment, he is anything but “alive”. Though he is breathing, moving around, he “lives” like an automaton, or to use his own words, “a monster”, a monster created not only by his captors, but molded too by himself; a monster with only one goal in his life, to see the annihilation of his captors.

Consider one scene where Oh Dae-Su was fighting a whole alley of people (a one-shot scene, a remarkable cinematic achievement). Never for once did he waver, the planks hit him, the knives stabbed him, the punches landed, and he fight, on and on and on. It’s as if he is possessed, a monster clothed in human skin. The obsession for revenge is so palpable that one can see it, even smell it, in his punches and between his breath. He has a tunnel vision, a vision for revenge, and not even a stab in his back can stop this. He breathes vengeance, it fills him. But one wonders what will become of him once his appetite for vengeance is satiated.

One particular scene especially moved me, for after his release, when he walked into the sushi restaurant, before his fateful encounter with Mido, the aforementioned attractive sushi chef, he ordered live octopus (which is a delicacy in Asian countries, termed in Korea “sanakji”). What he then did is horrifying, yet saddening. Oh devoured the octopus in an unusual way, for he grabbed the octopus, tore with it with his teeth, consuming it while the living octopus is still living, grabbing Oh’s hands and his mouth with its tentacles. And Oh briefly suffocates due to the blockage of the throat by the octopus. What he did here was not a simple act of eating, he consumes the octopus for he craves life. But his craving for life is not genuine, for it is artificial, just like a drowning sailor who gasped for air before the water sets into his lungs. He yearns for it, after 15 years of complete isolation, where he lived not like a human being, but rather like a dog, an animal encased in a hotel room like a prehistoric mosquito in amber.

Just like what Rust, the character in “True Detective” said, “My life’s been a circle of violence and degradation long as I can remember.” The same can be said of Oh Dae-Su, for he doesn’t live, he prowls, he survives the violence and degradation, in order to create more of it. His life is nothing but a Shakespearean tragedy, as he moves along the lines of fate predicated by Destiny, by the Deus ex Machina. The film explodes in all directions, all equally miserable, as Oh Dae-Su plunges into the abyss, the darkness that is within him, while the film lays bear everything his mind and heart has to offer, and strips him until all there is left is his insanity.

And for that, we pity him, for he weeps alone, and laughs alone.



(Don’t watch the 2013 remake, or if you really want to, watch the original Korean version first. Because the American remake is incomparable with the original, and loses its obsession, its atmosphere; it is essentially Americanized. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with remakes and have watched countless superb remakes, but this remake in particular is not good. Unless you are watching Elizabeth Olsen, then go ahead.  :D)

I have found my Goddess!


Posted in Movie Review.

Hew studied at HELP (love that school), is a Psych grad, and currently works at a non-consequential job for non-consequential wages. Talk with him about literature or the arts (visual and audio), or just anything related to pop culture and he will spazz with geekish excitement (please talk to him, he is lonely and needs help). He lives in Malaysia.

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