Mr. Park: We put a hypnosis-inducing drug in your water.
Oh Daesu: Sodium barbiturate?
Mr. Park: Ha! TV Man knows it all!
A silhouette looms in the dark center of Oldboy‘s first frame. As the camera tilts up slowly to reveal the situation and the figure, you see that he is holding a second man’s necktie, and the second man is about to fall off a rooftop. The man on top, the man holding the tie, appears as a fierce, fright-wigged head in shadow cast against a pale blue sky. Asked his name, this would be savior announces, Oh Daesu (Choi Min-sik). At the instant of his identification, the scene cuts back in time to a previous, differently harrowing moment: Oh Deasu gazes dopily at the camera, drunk in a police station, his face shaved, his hair neatly trimmed, his nose bloodied.
Oh Daesu’s story unfolds in spurts and stops, a grim revenge tale rife with extreme violence and soul-crushing schemes. Its rhythms are perhaps especially provocative, subjective renderings of time and space undone. Oh Daesu’s brief stay with the cops is rendered in antic shards, as he professes ignorance and a sort of innocence (“My name means getting along with people,” he slurs, “Why can’t I get along today? Set me free”). Once he is free, however, by loyal friend No Joo-Hwan (Chi Dae-Han), his life collapses. His wife is murdered, his daughter missing, and he’s thrown into a bizarre prison for an unknown sentence. It ends up being 15 years.
Locked in a sad, dingy room, he begins to write in green journals: “I wrote down all the people I fought with and bothered,” he says, looking back in voiceover. “This was both my prison journal and autobiography of my evil deeds. I thought I had lived an average life, but I’ve sinned too much.” As he recalls occasional interactions with jailers (food tray deliveries, beatings, injections), the images are fragmented, shot from overhead, via surveillance monitors, or too close-up. All underline Oh Daesu’s ongoing duress, helplessness, and utter confusion, as he sees ants crawling out of his arm or watches tv incessantly, understanding time and “history” in pieces: the detah of Princess Diana, the rise of Kim Jong Il, the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, the handover of Hong Kong to China.
“The television,” he observes, “is both a clock and a calendar. It’s your school, home, church, friend [here he sees the famous moment in Frankenstein when the monster smokes with his “friend”] and lover.” And at this point, he watches pop girl dancers, touches the screen, and jerks off, at least until he’s drugged again and dragged off screen. The abuse leads to anger, yes, and the cogitations to fantasies of vengeance. If only he knew who had imprisoned him and why.
Oh Daesu’s release is hardly revelatory, in that he is granted no clear answers, only a suitcase with clothes and a watch. Finding himself on a rooftop, he is awed by the sky and the mere sight of a “human being” with a little white dog in hand, Oh Daesu soon learns the man means to jump. Though he keeps him briefly alive by holding his tie (indicated in the movie’s first moments), eventually, he leaves the man alone and makes his way to the street below. As the man with the dog slams into a car in the background, a suicide at last, Oh Daesu keeps walking toward the camera, a pair of sunglasses he’s just stolen from a woman on the elevator blocking and also mocking his severe gaze. “Laugh,” he says, “and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone.”
Oldboy is all about being alone. As Oh Daesu makes his bleak way back into some semblance of civilization, he’s in pursuit of a single, though complex goal, to understand why he has been imprisoned. This means finding the man responsible, but it also means gathering and processing little bits of information, much of it cryptic and all leading to dreadful self-understanding. His re-acclimation involves some predictable, if highly stylized, set pieces (he beats down a corner-hanging gang, he marvels at the wonders of email) and some more striking: he takes on an army of opponents (in a long take, wherein the camera tracks his bloody, brutal, hammer-wielding progress down a sickly-green-walled hallway), and eats a live octopus at the sushi bar where he meets his sidekick and eventual lover, the lovely sushi chef Mido (Gang Hye-Jung).
This encounter leads Oh Daesu one a series of parallel journeys, at once intimate and iniquitous. She devotes herself to his cause (and even endures her own ant-hallucination, riding a subway train with a giant insect, in a series of near-sublime shots), offering to help him find his long-lost daughter and track down the mastermind behind his imprisonment (her plaintive query, “Wanna go to the grave together?” evokes Oh Daesu’s pained smile, fixed as his voice informs you that he will never quit until he’s killed his sworn enemy, whoever he is.
With Mido’s help, Oh Daesu does locate this guy, of course, the excruciatingly cool and wealthy Lee Woo-Jin (Yoo Ji-Tae), whose ridiculously convoluted scheme ranges from threats (“I’m going to kill every woman you love until you die”) to bitterly delivered abuses (the “famous teeth torture,” set to, of all musics, Vivaldi’s “Winter”). And Oh Daesu takes it all, determined to understand the depth of this scheme, to figure it and the man before he exacts his own, properly and finely tuned, revenge plan. “You seek revenge,” muses Lee Woo-Jin, “Or do you find the truth? Oh you’re in a tough spot. Seeking revenge is the best cure for someone in a tight spot.”
And this is the issue in Oldboy, winner of the Jury Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes film festival, for you as well as Oh Daesu. Revenge depends on knowing, and so do revenge pictures. The climax depends on knowing that justice—bizarre or practical, deserved or excessive—is done. When that knowledge, however, proves more devastating than any spectacular thrill to be offered by (cinematic) violence, then the questions and the answers, the very trajectory of knowledge, might be too much. Or not enough.