"Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone."
While these words open the famous poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox entitled “Solitude,” they are also repeated often in Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. As the main character recites these words time and time again, they reflect to his personal affliction and indicate that his suffering is not shared. In essence, the film’s protagonist believes that the only path to conquering his suffering is to seek revenge.
Through and through, Oldboy is a vengeance film. In fact, it’s very similar to Kill Bill in that its lead seeks retribution and is willing to shed blood in the process. On the other hand, Oldboy is also a mystery thriller, a warped romance (to say the least), and an unrestrained karmic adventure.
Dae-Su Oh [or Oh Dae-Su as the Koreans say] (Min-sik Choi) is an ordinary Seoul businessman. After one drunken night with his pal Joo-hwan (Dae-han Ji), Dae-Su finds himself locked in a hotel-like prison cell without an explanation as to why. He describes his unknown captives as “gracious bastards,” because while they keep him locked up, they also cut his hair, change his clothes, and clean up his place after gassing him with valium.
Outside of Dae-Su Oh’s world of captivity, he is framed for the murder of his wife; his disappearance is then explained by him fleeing the scene of the crime. Years later, when Dae-Su is given a third chopstick with his meal by accident, he begins to dig (a la Escape from Alcatraz). As he pokes through the outer wall of the building that houses him, he vows to himself to escape in one month. Yet, before he can escape on his own terms, he is mysteriously released after 15 long years of confinement.
Upon his discharge, he steals a pair of woman’s sunglasses, picks up a new curse word, and orders “something still alive” from a sushi bar. At this sushi bar, he meets Mi-do (Hye-jeong Kang), a pretty, young chef. The pair connect and begin to unravel the mystery of who kidnapped Dae-Su and why.
However, when Dae-Su meets the mastermind, Woo-jin Lee (Ji-tae Yu), behind his imprisonment, he is tested and given a ticking clock. If Dae-Su figures out the reason for his imprisonment within five days, his captor will commit suicide. If Dae-Su doesn’t figure it out, his captor will kill every woman that Dae-Su ever loved—including Mi-do.
It is no surprise that Quentin Tarantino campaigned for Oldboy to win the top prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival; Oldboy is right up his alley. Director Chan-wook Park makes his Tarantino-like presence felt with a side-scrolling fight scene (comparable to Contra) – that is shot in one continuous take – and an inventive presentation of its conclusion panning back and forth from executing in real-time to seeing Dae-Su prepare to leave.
In fact, Park’s vicious neo noir/martial arts style almost speaks louder than its substance. With scenes that involve a squid and the human digestive system, a hammer and human teeth, and a pair of scissors and a human tongue, Park makes it hard for viewers to stomach and simultaneously turn away. Likewise, Park’s perverse nature increases the shock-value and the need to shower after the credits.
“Be it a grain of sand or rock, in water, they both sink.” Oldboy does not sink; instead, it rises to the top while taking on little water. While “buoyant” is an inapplicable adjective to describe Oldboy, the picture is gripping, gruesome, and daunting. What’s more, it is memorable, comical, and valiant. Finally, amidst the slew of hyphenated first names (i.e. Dae-Su, Joo-hwan, Mi-do, Woo-jin, and Su-ah), Oldboy is Su-perb.
Post Script: Check out the other two parts of Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy, Part I: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Part III: (Sympathy for) Lady Vengeance; Oldboy fits in the middle as the second installment.