Originally shown December 2, 2009
A lot of revenge thrillers pay lip-serice to the idea that getting revenge may not have been such a good idea in the first place. But, you can tell that it’s only lip-service because the revenge itself turns out to be pretty bad-ass. Movies like Man on Fire or Taken certainly try to imply that their heroes are awful, awful people because of the awful, awful violence that they inflict on others. The fact that audiences tend to chuckle while that violence is being done tells the real truth.
With that in mind, I have a hard time assessing Oldboy, the 2003 film from director Park Chan-wook that is generally credited with starting the current renaissance in Korean filmmaking. On one hand, it’s a highly stylized story of Oh Dae-su, who is inexplicably imprisoned in a hotel room for sixteen years and uses his imprisonment to become bent on bloody vengeance upon his release. On the other hand, an unforgettable third-act twist tries to go well beyond the call of duty in showing that revenge is not a desirable thing to have.
Make no mistake: Oldboy is pulp, pure and simple. The entire kidnapping-and-imprisonment scheme seems like something out of a Bond film, and the dramatic twist turns upon a use of hypnosis that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of Charlie’s Angels. However, as Quentin Tarantino showed the world, there’s nothing wrong with pulp if it’s well-acted and beautifully shot, and Park delivers that on all levels.
Oldboy looks flashy when it needs to, such as the famous sequence in which Dae-su fights a hallway full of assailants with a hammer. More important is that Park also knows when to rein himself in and just shoot a scene while letting the actors work. There are lots of scenes of conflict in this movie, and you can’t shoot them all like the hammer-fight because not all of them are physical conflicts. This is a film which knows when it needs to be quiet and when the audience wants it to be loud.
In a way, my biggest problem with Oldboy isn’t the fault of the filmmakers or the actors. It’s the fault of Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people and himself on the campus of Virginia Tech in 2007. Among the many disturbing manifestos he left behind was a picture of himself posing with a hammer, in exactly the same way Choi was portrayed in posters for Oldboy.
Now, I’m not saying that Oldboy caused Cho to become a killer. That’s a ridiculous argument, and I almost always reject it when people try to apply it to any film. But when I saw Oldboy a second time after the massacre, I struggled with it. Because I knew that Cho’s main take-away from the film seemed to be “that hammer shit was awesome,” it became more and more difficult for me to give the movie credit for its dramatic third act.
Of course, a revenge thriller with awesome fights are not always a bad thing, but neither are they new or unusual; you could get the same experience from Taken. The first time I saw Oldboy I had thought it was a completely new sort of movie, a sort of Far Eastern Pulp Fiction. The post-VT viewing made it seem like a rip-off of John Woo, the sort of movie that you see and love when you’re an angry teenager and have all but forgotten by the time you leave college. Maybe I’m wrong, but in film as in all media, context is everything.
Reviewed by Mark Young