I swear I’m not on a South Korea kick, but perhaps the Sundance Channel was, because I managed to DVR both The Brotherhood of War and this feature, Oldboy, in probably less than a week. The version of Oldboy shown at Cinema 1544 was the 2003 original by Chan-wook Park and not the 2013 remake (a clarification which, had I not been so late in reviewing the original, would have been not only unnecessary but nonsensical – no matter).
Time for the live review of one of my least-favorite vengeance stories, Oldboy!
The movie starts with a nosebloodied dude in a drunk tank, which really doesn’t make a ton of sense. Then he disappears when his friend who has bailed him out, is on a pay phone calling his family. That’s doesn’t make any sense, either.
We move to a man who is imprisoned in something looking like a hotel room – imprisoned for 15 years, and occasionally gassed and tampered with. Oh! It’s the same dude (Oh Dae-Su), even though he totally didn’t look the same. One year after his imprisonment he learns (from the television, no less) that he is the prime suspect in the murder of his own wife – his blood and fingerprints having been taken from him during one of the moments he was knocked out. With the help of an accidental third chopstick (metal) and 14 years of nothing to do but strength training, he finally gets to the point where he has broken through a wall – one brick. He figures he’d be out in a month. Just then, he is gassed once again and released, now a fugitive because of his wife’s death, and given some cash and a cell phone on which he gets a mysterious call which only implores him to determine not who imprisoned him, but why.
Then he eats a live octopus. And that was not special effects. Whoa.
He hooks up (and falls in love) with the octopus sushi chef and sets out to find his former prison by the takeout Chinese dumplings they served him – he once caught a ripped piece of menu saying “blue dragon”, so he tracks down every Blue Dragon restaurant in town until he finds the food he’s so familiar with. He follows a delivery boy to the seventh floor of a building, and finding his own prison he kicks some serious ass armed only with a hammer in the famous hall-fight scene. Even after his thirty assailants knife him in the back. He doesn’t learn anything else, he just kicks some serious ass.
It quickly becomes clear that the man responsible for his imprisonment is orchestrating basically his entire life – even the sushi chef, though she’s not in on it. Oddly, the man who imprisoned Oh Dae-su allows himself to be found (Oh Dae-Su doesn’t know who he is) and is even under Oh Dae-Su’s power, but the baddie reveals that he has a pacemaker with a remote off button – so no torture for him. It’s either revenge now, or play the game and figure out why. Oh Dae-Su opts to determine why.
It’s somewhere around this point that the entire premise of the movie becomes implausible to me. The level of surveillance, the level of anticipation, the post-hypnotic suggestion, the level of control that this single dude with one or two henchmen is able to exercise is supernatural. To make a long story short, it turns out that in a long-forgotten incident from his high-school days (in fact the day he moved away to a new city) he blabbed about a couple he spied making out. Unbeknownst to him, that couple turned out to be – shock upon shock! – brother and sister. After she killed herself due to rumors – mere rumors – that she was pregnant with her brother’s child, the brother set out to avenge his loss, very, very patiently.
And the two men, from the same high-school class, are only about 20 years different in age, so that casting decision worked out real well.
Anyhow, Oh Dae-Su goes to the main baddie’s penthouse to kill him, but instead gets to learn the truth – the whole reason that he was let out now, 15 years later, was because the three-year-old daughter he had lost when imprisoned so many years ago was now old enough to be…his sushi chef lover! Gotta give the guy some credit – while the implementation is completely impossible, the vengeance was pretty awesome. When Oh Dae-Su finds out the truth, he goes a bit crazy. He begs the bad guy not to reveal the secret to his daughter, he offers to be his dog (even licking his shoes), he even cuts out his own tongue with a rusty pair of scissors.
Then the bad guy, his revenge complete, kills himself. So much for the big confrontation. And what does Oh Dae-Su do? He gets himself hypnotized so he can forget the past and move out to some siberian wasteland where he can continue banging his daughter without her (or his own) knowledge. Messed. Up.
Now, either Sundance cut the crap out of this movie, or the director did, but I’m thinking it was the former, because I don’t think it would have made nearly as much sense had I not seen it already. Anyway, I don’t know. I love Titus Andronicus, but for some reason this particular revenge-flick leaves me cold. I think it’s just the completely ludicrous scale of this solitary dude’s vengeance. Honestly, the second time it bothered me less, because I was already prepared for it. But at the same time, being completely prepared for the nature of the incest vengeance made it somehow cartoonish. The film is no longer horrific, it’s just silly. Just for a thought exercise, contrast this with the closing scene from Se7en. I can watch that over, and over, and over, and it’s fresh and horrifying every time even though I know what’s coming. That’s a well-done movie. Oldboy? On first viewing the implementation of the revenge is implausible to the point of distraction. Once you know the twist…meh. Unless you really need to see a dude yank another dude’s teeth out with pliers, what does it have to offer?