With Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, South Korea reconfirms its reputation for producing exciting and edgy films. Winner of the prestigious Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes in 2004, Oldboy is already infamous for its grim violence, but it also addresses loneliness, sterility, and anguish. In spite of its graphic brutality and bleak story of insatiable revenge, Oldboy feels more like an existential drama by Ingmar Bergmann than a brainless action bloodbath.
Oldboy is the second entry in Park’s planned “revenge” trilogy, sandwiched between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and the upcoming Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, which make evident Park’s own obsession with the nature of retribution. In an exclusive interview on the DVD, he spends over 15 minutes talking about violence, revenge, and the cathartic effects his movies may induce in the viewer. He confesses that, “Quite frankly, I do not understand why other film directors do not make vengeance stories, because it is so dramatic and attractive.” And later on, he states his belief that violence is a natural emotion repressed by modern society, and how his films may provide a healthy way to vent these feelings.
The first scene in Oldboy is a low angle, medium shot of a man with the bright sky in the background. We see only his silhouette, unable to discern the features of his face. This image reflects anticipates the film’s visual and narrative structure: it is about strong contrasts, about good versus evil.
According to Park and cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong, Oldboy‘s visual design — strong contrasts and low saturation levels — was difficult to accomplish. In their informative commentary, they discuss technological hurdles, such as the risky bleach bypass process (where silver particles are not removed from the negative) that may permanently ruin the film if done incorrectly and the complex lighting requirements, that had to be overcome to realize this highly contrastive style.
The fierce dark figure at the beginning of the film is revealed to be Oh Daesu (Choi Min-Sik), introduced in a flashback as a drunk detained at a police station. Seriously late for his daughter’s birthday party, he holds her present: the white feathered wings of an angel costume. Though these scenes suggest Oh Daesu is a loving father, his behavior is so exasperating that he hardly inspires audience identification. As soon as his friend No Joo-Hwan (Chi Dae-Han) bails him out, Oh Daesu mysteriously disappears. The angel wings appear lying in the middle of the street, poetically symbolic of his lost freedom.
Oh Daesu wakes up to find he is imprisoned by unknown captors and his wife has been brutally murdered. Strangely, he is not incarcerated in a traditional jail but in a decently furnished room without windows, more like a Holiday Inn room than a detention cell. He is never told where he is or why he is there. More painfully, he does not know how long he will be kept there.
While he was previously unable to keep time (indicated by his lateness for his daughter’s birthday party), now he is undone by a lack of temporal structure. He attempts suicide several times and then digs a hole through a wall, hoping to break out in a few “weeks.” He’s released before this moment, however, after 15 years of imprisonment. No rationale is provided for his captor’s actions.
The method of his release is equally puzzling, and perhaps even symbolic. One morning he just wakes up inside a suitcase at the top of an apartment building. Breaking his way out, he finds a man holding a small white dog who is about to commit suicide. Thanks to the audio commentary, we learn that this scene was very challenging to accomplish, and the entire camera crew was unhappy with Park. According to Jeong-hun, “The puppy was overexposed when the sun was bright. We though about applying some dirt to the puppy to darken his fur.”
Even though he manages to delay the man’s suicide, Oh Daesu continues to avoid audience identification, and he seems more obnoxious than before. His first tastes of liberty entail stealing a woman’s sunglasses and starting a street brawl with some teenagers. The first of many brutal fights initiated by Oh Daesu, this sequence is beautifully shot and choreographed. Obsessed with getting revenge on whoever was responsible for his misery, he cannot see beyond his immediate desire. In a deliciously gross scene, he goes to a sushi bar and asks for a live octopus, which he eats with great gusto. It’s as if he ants to consume a life, much as his years in prison have consumed his own.
It turns out that Lee Woo-Jin (Yoo Ji-Tae), the man responsible for Oh Daesu’s imprisonment, is also consumed by a desire for retribution. But their alternating acts of escalating aggression, are useless. Park describes his understanding of this futility: “Any good and well made vengeance story has the side in which not only the victim is destroyed, but the tormentor himself is destroyed as well… The moment the revenge is done, complete, then the tormented himself has no reason to live anymore, any longer.”
This theme is realized in Park’s images contrasting freedom and imprisonment. Indeed, Oh Daesu is always a prisoner. Before being incarcerated by Lee Woo-Jin, he was detained in a police station. Even when he is released, he remains a captive man, enslaved to his own rage and insatiable need for revenge. By the end, it’s clear that neither Oh Daesu nor Lee Woo-Jin will ever be free.