This post is part of The Retro Set’s Friday column The Retro Set Horror Corner, hosted by Meaghan Clohessy.
Last month, the trailer was released for the remake of Chan Wook Park’s Oldboy. The trailer promises an existential revenge thriller while attracting audiences with the performances of veteran actors such as Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson. Even then, audiences aren’t entirely sure what to expect. It should be noted that it is unwise to bring expectation to Park’s films, for Park seeks to confound expectations, desiccate them, and then feed them back to his audiences as they pick up the fragments of their exploded brain matter. By watching the original Oldboy, audiences will have a better idea of what they are in for when the remake comes out in October.
Oldboy follows Dae Su Oh, a man mysteriously imprisoned for fifteen years. When he is released, Dae Su goes on a rampage to kill everyone involved in his imprisonment. He falls in love with a waitress named Mi-Do and uncovers a syndicate devoted to locking people away. This discovery is only the beginning of Dae Su’s journey. When the path toward revenge and the path toward truth diverge, Dae Su realizes that one road is considerably more terrifying than the other.
For Park, violence is a plot device. While those who have heard of Oldboy may not know the plot, they certainly know the scene where Dae Su is yanking out someone’s teeth with a hammer to the melody of Vivaldi’s “Winter.” The Vivaldi scene marks Dae Su’s first stop on his rampage, torturing the man who ran the business that locked him away. The scene is certainly shocking, but it not used as shock value. What audiences are seeing is the emotional transformation of Dae Su. By using the allegro arrangement in “Winter,” audiences hear the onset of the storm that is Dae Su’s revenge, as well as his utter glee at listening to one of his former captors scream. After audiences see Dae Su’s hammer knocking out one tooth, Park pulls the camera away. We watch the torture from a distance, further demonstrating how violence is not simply shock value.
Leaving this scene, violence is also utilized as a means of characterization. During his imprisonment, Dae Su’s only companion is his television set. He learns how to fight through fifteen years of exercise commercials, action films, and boxing matches. As a result, his fighting is overtly stylized. He has been reduced to a cartoon character hopelessly lost in the narrative of his captors. Violence then becomes a commentary of how television has become our means of literacy. Soon violence is more than keeping audiences in seats. It becomes poetic, forcing audiences to look within themselves and question the very composition that makes up human nature.
The captivating strength behind this film is the destruction of the binaries that normally accompany a revenge thriller. The formula for most revenge films involves a clear difference between protagonist and antagonist. The protagonist has their path of revenge justified. The antagonist is stripped of human quality, removing audience sympathy. It’s good ninety minute entertainment, but forgotten the moment audiences leave the theater. However, Park doesn’t want his film to be forgotten. He wants his audience to build up expectations so he can rip them to shreds. That seminal moment occurs in the middle of the film, when Dae Su attempts kill Woo-jin Lee, the man who ordered him locked away. In this moment, Dae Su is the protagonist and Lee the antagonist. Before he can kill him, Lee offers Dae Su a choice: to kill him and satisfy his revenge or let him live so he can find out the truth to his imprisonment. Dae Su ultimately chooses the truth.
From here, the film splits from its revenge film arch, entering the haunting realm of a psychological mystery thriller. The more Dae Su uncovers the mystery, the more self-righteous he becomes. Audiences realize that Dae Su is just as cruel and prone to temptation as his captor, removing all rationale from his quest for revenge. There are also moments in the film where we find ourselves sympathetic toward Lee. Park gives audiences intimate shots of Lee, accompanied by a somber violin melody, destroying previous notions of Lee as a one-dimensional villain. By the end of the film, there is no longer a battle between good and evil, but a battle between two equally flawed human beings. It forces audiences to arrive to a frightening conclusion: if two ordinary men can be turned into beasts, what does that say about us?
From its subtle symbolism to its masterful storytelling, Oldboy is a film that needs to be seen. No matter how many times it’s watched, it serves to rewrite our expectations.