Film * Chan-wook Park * Vengeance and Urban Disaffection * 2003
Well that was certainly something. It is, in fact, rather difficult to get a proper handle on this film. The first two-thirds of Oldboy are mysterious and surreal, objective reality uncertain. Then, when all the answers start rolling in, it becomes simultaneously more and less weird. I am 80% certain that this is a good film, even if the actual plot, once revealed, is absurd. And upsetting. And confusing. There is some excellent and creative camerawork here, and the setting is reason I’m writing about this here. There is an inherent atmosphere of lonely post-humanism to vast Asian cities that Oldboy invokes well. The film isn’t necessarily about the dehumanizing aspects of these massive modern megacities, but it also kind of is. It’s just easy to lose track of the more subtle characteristics of Oldboy in that final nutbar third of the film.
Oldboy begins with a doughy, thirty-ish looking, drunken dipshit. He’s obliterated, and is being super obnoxious in a police station before he’s picked up by a buddy and we find out that whoops, he missed his little girl’s birthday. This is Dae-su Oh, our protagonist. Dae-su’s friend calls up his wife in a phone booth, and in this short time, Dae-su disappears. After this, the set-up. Dae-su is imprisoned in what appears to be a cheap hotel somewhere in a large, anonymous city. There, he spends 15 years eating nothing but fried dumplings and watching TV. Sometimes he freaks out, sometimes he scribbles in his notebooks, sometimes he punches the wall. Of course he tries to escape, but before he can Dae-su is released for no discernable reason.
While there is no reason Dae-su can fathom for what happened to him, his mind is set on revenge. Once free, he stumbles around the city, overwhelmed with sensory overload. He can’t call his family, because he has learned from TV that he is wanted for the murder of his wife. It turns out that television has been very instructive. Dae-su is full of fun facts and random information. Shortly after discovering that his imaginary training has enabled him to beat people up, he finds himself in a sushi bar. He wants to eat something alive, which he does and it is very gross. More importantly, he recognizes the chef from TV. Somehow, someway, they make a connection and Dae-su passes out, presumably from emotional overload.
When he wakes up, Dae-su finds himself in this enigmatic young woman’s apartment. Her name is Mi-do, and she finds this weird old guy to be sympathetic and compelling, despite the fact that Dae-su often sucks. Like that one time he tried to sexually assault Mi-do in the bathroom and is violently rebuffed. Mi-do is very understanding, I guess. Still, they like each other even though Dae-su is near-insane with his desire to revenge himself upon the mysterious entity who imprisoned him. It is soon revealed that Dae-su is being fucked with. He is given a flip phone and some money, and keeps receiving cryptic messages. Eventually, Dae-su is struck with the inspiration that he can track his former hotel-jail by eating dumplings. Since his meals never changed, he knows the taste exactly. He is able to track the place down, and shows up with a hammer. Then follows probably one of the greatest fight scenes I’ve ever seen.
Before I get to the end and spoil everything in an attempt to understand what in the actual fuck I just watched, I’m going to talk a little bit about the setting. Take a look at that fight scene. It’s a grimy, dimly lit corridor which we know leads to a weird hotel-jail. It is supremely urban, by which I mean it’s a setting that can only truly exist in a city. As the fight plays out, Dae-su Oh is nearly overcome several times by his swarm of attackers. He’s running on fumes, especially when that knife gets planted in his back. Yet he’s using the environment to his advantage in order to cope with the sheer number of people he has to deal with. Of course, he is also powered by sheer, blind emotion. The built-up rage and frustration of captivity exploding on these poor, hapless motherfuckers who keep getting clocked with a hammer. Victorious, Dae-su emerges from this dank corridor into an equally dismal parking garage, and from there back into the anonymous city.
I say victorious, but Dae-su is not a winner. He is set up from the very beginning to be a tragic figure, and his horrible end is destined from the start. Cut loose and adrift in the grey, rainy metropolis, the only thing he knows for certain is that he must seek answers. Shortly after the fight, he finds his man. However, he cannot kill his captor, because while the revenge bit would be nice what Dae-su really wants is to know why. I would argue that, even after all is revealed, we never really find out. Not really. Like, okay, the bad guy has a motivation of sorts, but what drives a person to kidnap and imprison a man for 15 years? There’s an undercurrent of debilitating loneliness that pervades the entire film, and this is due in large part to the overbearing urbanity these characters find themselves in.
Mi-do, the enigmatic young lady who takes to Dae-su is a less crazy example of this process. Yes, she is eccentric, and she takes an unhealthy shine to this obvious lunatic. When she first takes him in, Mi-do admits to this crushing loneliness. This is a common refrain throughout the film. Most of the characters are in some way or another utterly alone amidst the crushing sea of humanity. Not only is this a theme in this film, it’s part of a larger understanding that modern cities are bad for feeling humans. This idea – that the vast metropolis is beyond the human scale of understanding and therefore has a dehumanizing effect on how we live – is as old as the Moderns. I’m not going to go all Civilization and its Discontents on you, but it’s a common idea, and something which has only become worse as Modernity moves into Post-Modernity and beyond, as the population only grows and the individual becomes less significant.
All of this comes into play when it comes time to try and explain just what the hell. Because after watching the end of this thing, it’s easy to come up short on answers and explanations. The shorthand response I have come up with is: Post-Modern city living makes people crazy. Perhaps that’s not entirely satisfactory, but holy shit look at what happens in this film and you try and come up with something better.
It turns out that Dae-su knows his captor, or at least was acquainted with him, from high school. Back in the day, Dae-su was the class clown, a flamboyant dummy who liked being a goof and getting laid. So far, okay. Then one day, he found himself attracted to a pretty young lady who wasn’t interested in his idiot shtick. That’s okay too, because I’m sure Dae-su is used to rejection. However, he is intrigued enough by this girl that he ends up following her to where she is holed up in some abandoned room in the school. It is here that Dae-su discovers that she is having an incestuous relationship with her brother. Ew. Naturally, Dae-su tells his friend, and then the rumor is all over the school. Eventually, the brother knocks up the pretty young girl, and she kills herself/is killed by her brother (it’s an ambiguous scene). Naturally, the brother is pretty broken up about this, and blames Dae-su for all his troubles. He even claims that Dae-su’s rumor was the cause of a false pregnancy. Okay, buddy, sure it was.
So that’s the motivation for the extravagant revenge plot. So distraught by Dae-su’s rumor, the brother, Woo-jin Lee, concocts a long-game revenge scheme. Once he makes a bunch of money and gets himself a penthouse overlooking the vast, anonymous city, a bunch of antique cameras, and a white-haired man-servant, he puts his plan into motion. Lee has Dae-su kidnapped and placed in hotel-jail. But that’s not all. He also has his wife killed. And then he places the young daughter into foster care and keeps track of her. Then – and here is where plausibility goes right out the fucking window – he plants hypnotic suggestion into both the daughter and Dae-su so that when certain phrases are used, they are bonded to one another. So it is contrived that Dae-su meets an enigmatic young lady named Mi-do, falls in love, and has several bouts of rowdy sex with his own daughter. Double ew.
Dae-su finds all this out and is of course destroyed. However, Mi-do does not know. Having lost in his bid for revenge, Dae-su utterly debases himself in front of his captor. Also for some reason he cuts out his own tongue. Eventually, Woo-jin grants one small mercy: Mi-do is spared from learning the truth about being in love with (and boning) her father. Shortly after, Woo-jin realizes that his entire life was dedicated to seeking revenge on this poor bastard who really didn’t even do anything. And not just regular revenge, but crazy, convoluted, weird revenge. Now that the tragedy is complete, Lee shoots himself and Dae-su is alone with his horrible knowledge.
Oh, but wait. The final scene of the film takes place in the mountains. It’s snowing, and Dae-su has approached some mystical lady who apparently has the ability to counteract hypnotic suggestion as well as make people forget. So Dae-su has this lady erase his knowledge that Mi-do is his daughter so he can continue loving her without feeling weird about it. What the actual fuck, movie? So yeah, I don’t know. The whole hypnotism thing is super weird and implausible, and what on earth the whole incest angle adds to the proceedings I have no idea.
One last thing, concerning the setting, and then I don’t want to think about this movie for a while. All of the weird, upsetting things that happen over the course of the film occur within the urban confines of the vast, unknowable city. Sure, the flashback to high school is a more provincial setting, but after that life is lived in a metropolis. The environment is both massive and claustrophobic (like the tight confines of the corridor fight), and seems to cause existential dread and loneliness which drives people to do insane things. The final scene takes place in wild nature, atop a snowy mountain range. There are trees and despite the cold the setting is alive. And it is here in which Dae-su embraces love. Sure, it’s the romantic love for his own daughter, but at least it’s a real feeling, which has so far been absent from both of their lives. I could be wrong, but I think Oldboy is justifying incest to me. Never mind that there literally millions of people in that city to connect with goddammit! Yeah, I don’t know. What a disturbing and excellent film.