They say time heals all wounds. They also argue that vengeance simmers like a stone in the soul. Combining to two should result in an exercise in forced forgiveness, a chance to let the calendar calm the pain and the distance of decades to erode away the desire for payback. But sometimes, the opposite happens, especially when the reason for the ache is ambiguous, and the manner in which it was administered unnecessary. There are those occasions where an individual’s own guilt is so strong, their life path so strewn with evil and amoral choices, that no amount of time could solve their rage. Instead, the need for retribution burns like a furnace, charring everything around it in a swath of sadness and madness.
This is what happens to two interconnected souls – unimportant businessman Dae-su Oh and wealthy playboy Woo-jin Lee. One has a misguided vendetta against the other. Said victim has a clear grudge against the man who he believes imprisoned him unnecessarily for 15 years. As complicated a game of cat and mouse as the cinema has ever seen, Chan-wook Park’s OldBoy stands as a monument to the Nu-Asia genre of film, and South Korea’s domination of the category in general. As part of his brilliant Vengeance Trilogy (including Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) Park’s middle act marries Western ideas of violence as vindicator with Eastern elements of honor, status and cruelty. It is safe to say that both protagonist and antagonist here are equally guilty of transgressions against the other. What isn’t so clear is what payback will gain them, if anything.
This was part of Park’s design all along. In a stunning new three disc tin box collector’s set from Tartan Video, the process behind this provocative motion picture is laid bare, with the director divulging as many behind the scenes processes as possible to amplify the theme of his movie. In essence, OldBoy is part thriller, part primer on the horrors of hate. Park professes to purposefully making his characters blank and unemotional, channeling all their inner emotion into their meticulous plans for reprisal. In Dae-su Oh’s case (brilliantly essayed by actor Min-sik Choi) the years of isolation, brainwashing, hypnotism and torture have left him literally empty inside, except for a festering need to find out who kidnapped him after that late night of drinking, as well as why he’s been stashed away from the rest of the world for a decade and a half.
In the case of Woo-jin Lee, the stakes are slightly more obscure. A dandy on the outside, but unmentionably dark on the inside, actor Ji-tae Yu turns the enigmatic catalyst for all of Dae-su Oh’s problems into a formidable foe, a man building his entire life’s desire onto one easily collapsible plan of payback. In the film’s narrative Woo-jin’s house of corrupt cards can fall at any moment. Dae-su can give up his quest. The mobsters he’s working with can decide to double cross him. The use of unscientific notions like hypnosis could collide with happenstance, and truth could be unveiled without the commiserate comeuppance the man is looking for. From his palatial penthouse (purposefully designed by Park to reflect an individual making existence more complicated than it has to be), to the overly intricate plan that’s supposed to satisfy his hurt, Woo-jin is the worst kind of bad guy – focused, yet formless. With him, anything can happen…and almost always does.
That is indeed the point of OldBoy. Park’s participation in a series of commentary tracks for this new release highlight how he carefully crafted his plot to leave questions in the audience’s mind about who’s the hero and who’s the heavy. Clearly, when considered side by side, Dae-su has the most understandable need for revenge. He’s been imprisoned, and as a result, lost to the world (including his family) for more than one complete generation. Though his life is loaded with misdeeds, he can’t fathom the crime he committed to require such an unexpected and uncompromising sentence. Still, Park wants to make sure that Dae-su is not considered completely innocent. As a matter of fact, the moments of animalistic violence used as steps toward the final denouement are meant to highlight the character’s clear proclivity toward such anti-social behavior.
It is these amazing moments, like the stunning hallway/hammer fight completed in one magnificent take (with a little technical tweaking here and there) that takes up most of the second DVD’s documentary run time. Park is a proficient director, completely capable of improvising on the spot and screwing with the cinematic paradigm to foster a furtherance of his occasionally lofty goals. All throughout the box set, we see moments where experiments are attempted, diversions are crafted, and input from the cast and crew are taken, each moving the film into differing dynamic directions. Similarly, Park professes to having a homage-heavy style, and its interesting to hear about how certain sequences – like the high school foot chase through time - were inspired by other directors (Brian DePalma) and their efforts (Dressed to Kill).
Even more intriguing, Park used varying subliminal visual cues throughout OldBoy, hoping to affect the perception of what is happening while dropping hints along the way of the connections between the characters. For example, Woo-jin Lee is represented by the color purple (which in many Asian cultures symbolized death), while Dae-su is surrounded by browns and greens (with their obvious overtures toward decay and rot). In some of the supplemental material, we see how the art direction was purposefully fashioned to exploit this ideal as well as set up secret warnings that only the most observant viewer would possible pick up. Other times, Park uses particular filmmaking styles – a documentary approach for the opening, an obvious artsy method during the incarceration and isolation material. In fact, it is safe to say that OldBoy represents a masterful competition between acuity vs. actuality. What we see on the screen can sometimes be much more important than what is actually happening between the characters.
But because of the mannerisms he employs overall, like staging a car crash with the vehicles poised at Los Angeles and New York, respectively, part of OldBoy‘s brilliance is the way in which it gets to that final confrontation. Even more amazing, Park purposefully pulls back during the all important showdown, using unusual aesthetic choices to challenge the viewer’s preconceived notions of what should occur. Fights flourish behind low, ambient music. Confrontations are lax, left unknown by choices in camera angle and framing. This is all part of the plan, a choice made by Park to prepare the audience for anything and everything. One of the more magical elements of OldBoy is that, even if you can predict everything that’s going to happen, Park is already several steps ahead, ready to thwart your most considered expectations with his mesmerizing tricks.
Oddly, the two individuals most responsible for the issues between the men - Woo-jin’s sister Lee Soo-ah and Dae-su’s gal pal, Mi-do – are more or less left on the outskirts of the story, their identity far more important than the part they play in each character’s current situation. Park argues that this was not a determined slight, one that should warrant criticism from women’s groups arguing about the downplaying of the female facets of the film. Instead, it’s all part of a bigger symbol being shuttled back and forth – the notion that anger and the need for revenge can blind people to the truth laying right before their eyes. Both actresses here are excellent, giving brave performances that require them to simulate some often scandalous situations. But neither comes across as completely compelling, either. OldBoy makes it clear that, in the realm of defending honor and seeking justice, men make all the decisions – for bad and for good.
That so much meaning can be buried inside what many might view as a Tarantino-esque excuse to overload the screen with brutality and blood argues for the artistic prowess of South Korean cinema, something that Tartan’s new box set sells very well. The third DVD in the set provides a production diary that gives us a day-by-day breakdown of OldBoy‘s filming, and it’s an eye-opener. Gone are the Hollywood mandates for superstar treatment and specialized crewmembers. Missing are the moments when personal and professional desires clash. In their place, we see plenty of hard work, long nights and intense collaborations. Though presented without clear context or explanatory voiceover narration, this footage argues for an unseen maxim in the Asian movie business. Many fans feel that most films are fashioned out of luck, talent, and a sprinkling of magic. The truth is that experiences as exemplary as OldBoy are not the result of some wizard’s spell. They result from a coming together of creative minds all willing to work hard to forge something special.
In OldBoy‘s case, the finished product remains one of the new millennium’s best movies. And when you consider that Park produced companion pieces of equal power as both cinema and stylistic statements, his importance as a creative force cannot be undermined. One of the best things about the DVD format is that it allows for a window into a world – filmmaking – that many of us outside the business would never have an opportunity to experience. With this new three disc release (which includes an English translation of the Japanese Manga “comic” used as the foundation for the storyline), we witness the process that made this film so magnificent. While the final scene of the film may be open to interpretation, Park’s intensions are very clear. OldBoy is indeed a movie about the passage of time. But instead of healing all wounds, or lifting the stone from one’s soul, all that’s created is a path toward personal and metaphysical destruction. It’s as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.
Tartan Video‘s Three Disc Ultimate Collector’s Edition version of OldBoy was released on 14 November, 2006. For information on this title from Amazon.com, just click here
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.